Two Facebook whistleblowers leaned in, but only one became a media star

Why white, cis feminists must not be the ‘default’ version of tech critique, or anything else.

Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

In 2021 two former Facebook employees stepped forward as whistleblowers. One became an international media star, while the other is virtually unknown. Frances Haugen garnered global headlines after her 60 Minutes interview on October 3, during which she revealed that she was the anonymous whistleblower who supplied the internal documents for the Wall Street Journal’s investigative series, which showed that Facebook knew Instagram harms many teenage girls and that it was fully aware of the damage caused by its for-profit disinformation. Two days later, she testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing that was watched around the world.

In September 2020 Sophie Zhang blew the whistle on Facebook’s refusal to act against dictators who were creating fake accounts on a vast scale to manipulate their own citizens and steal elections. Facebook’s response was to fire her. Zhang promptly published a nearly 8,000-word memo detailing her concerns on her personal website, parts of which Buzzfeed excerpted —before Facebook pressured the company that hosted her website to delete both the site and her domain name.

When Zhang went public with her identity in mid-2021, journalist Julie Carrie Wong wrote a long feature report about her for The Guardian, while Karen Hao’s deep dive interview with the whistleblower was published by MIT Tech Review . But the Senate did not invite Zhang to a special Senate hearing; nor, until a recent outcry over the disparate treatment, did any high- profile television news shows ask to interview her. As Wong tweeted on October 12, “I’m glad people are paying attention to her now but it’s weird to retcon her into a secondary player in Haugen’s narrative.”

Why is Frances Haugen the default whistleblower to whom all others are compared—even those that came before her?

Zhang might have been shunted into a secondary role partly because she is “not charismatic”  and “not good at attracting or receiving attention,” as she told CNN reporter Donnie O’Sullivan in an interview broadcast on October 12.  “I am an introvert who wants to stay home and pet my cats,” Zhang said. Another factor that might be partly responsible for Zhang’s relative anonymity: Americans who work for the Wall Street Journal and convene Senate sub-committee hearings care more about Instagram’s possible effects on their adolescent daughters’ self-image than about stolen elections and human rights abuses in Honduras and Azerbaijan.

A year after Zhang published her memo, the claims and documentation that both she and Haugen provided are now central to a new push in the US to regulate Facebook. And yet Haugen is “the Facebook whistleblower” while, to some, Zhang is just “an ex-employee.” (The unspoken “disgruntled” in that last sentence is silent, but powerful.)

In this tale of two American whistleblowers, one was given the role of the princess, commanding attention and praise, inspiring king-makers in Washington D.C. to insist the time has finally come for regulation. And the other? I’m not going to say she played the step-sister, because I hope we’ve all come a long way from denigrating blended families, but Zhang’s reception made it clear she’s expected to be part of a different and much smaller story. If it were a house-party, she’d be the help, not the host. Meanwhile, the significant ongoing work to document, explain, and stop the systematic harms of tech companies has been carried out by women of color; and they have gone almost completely unnoticed.

The Facebook fiasco inadvertently shines a light on different strains of feminism, and the wildly disparate varieties of attention and support they receive both from the media and from policymakers.

At the top of the status game sits Sheryl Sandberg, a key inspiration for girlboss feminists, for whom victory simply means winning power, not challenging it. Corporate feminism, often the reserve of privileged white women, celebrates women who “lean in” to a man’s world, not those who insist it needs to change so that everyone has a fair chance. It’s about “diversity and inclusion”— i.e., same values, different faces. It’s about having a nanny taking care of your children in a private, dedicated playroom next to your C-suite office, rather than building an on-site daycare center for all the employees’ children—let alone mandating parental leave and ending discrimination against parents and caregivers at every socioeconomic level. It’s about the magazines covers, nonfiction bestseller lists, and keynote slots at conferences. It is about the stranglehold of soft-spoken, acceptable female power, everywhere.

When it comes to criticism of big tech, corporate feminists are OK with data-extraction and surveillance, so long as the women doing it earn almost as much as the men. Those with misgivings tend to be “reformist” critics who lament what they see as unintended consequences of the business model; and they suggest only the gentlest of nudges. As Meredith Whittaker, Faculty Director of the AI Now Institute at NYU, puts it, ” ‘nuance’ is also a term heard increasingly from tech reformists, in reference to their prescriptions— usually adding oversight, transparency, accountability to the status quo. …more structural approaches like bans, breakups, redistribution, they imply, lack nuance.” In theory, not all corporate feminists are also tech apologists or, at best, reformists, but they all share a basic political stance that things are mostly OK, and just need a little tweaking at the edges. Call it “nudge criticism”; executives are just good people doing their best, and we just need a few rules changes to optimize the incentives of corporations. Nudge criticism gives establishment journalists and policymakers material for articles and legislative bills, but doesn’t change anything fundamental.

When Frances Haugen came forward as a whistleblower, she slipped smoothly into the role of the acceptable girlboss face of reformist tech criticism. This is not a criticism of Haugen, or her considerable PR resources, but of how media, policymakers and so many of us respond to her. Haugen is doing everything she can, and with all she’s got, but she’s never going to suggest lawmakers change the real rules of the game. And that, more than anything, is why she is center stage.

Sophie Zhang is a trans woman, and, echoing how trans feminists are forced to fight simply for their right to exist, she has sacrificed her physical and mental health, her relationships, her livelihood, status and peace of mind—just to be heard. None of this came easily to her, yet she has persisted far more than what is rational or reasonable, simply because she felt she must. Karen Hao’s painstakingly researched profile documents the physical and emotional abuse Zhang suffered as a teenager when she came out, and contains the quietly devastating reason why Zhang first tried so hard to change Facebook from within: “Ultimately, I decided that I was the person who stayed in imperfect situations to try and fix them.” Facebook fired Zhang for under-performance because, despite the company’s refusal to act against dictators who used the platform for political and electoral fraud, she kept on trying to fix it, in addition to doing the job she was officially paid to do, as a data scientist. Zhang knew from a previous experience of sexual harassment that she would be downplayed, discredited and disbelieved, so she documented every single claim she made.

It still wasn’t enough.

In July 2021, after almost a year doing everything she could think of to keep blowing the whistle, Zhang was disappointed by the lack of public and political response. Yet she couldn’t regret what she had done. It simply wasn’t in her character to do otherwise.

Zhang’s drive to broadcast the truth and protect people she’ll never meet, despite the high price she knew she would pay, is powerfully reminiscent of Chelsea Manning, who blew the whistle on the US military. Manning leaked videos and documentation of US abuse of detainees in Guantanamo and killing of civilians in Iraq to Wikileaks, amongst other materials, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. (President Obama, icon of gradualists and nuance-lovers everywhere, locked up more whistleblowers in eight years than all the presidents, cumulatively, before him. He commuted Manning’s sentence just before he left office, and she was finally able to transition.)

It cannot be a coincidence that two American trans women have been at the forefront of speaking truth to intensely coercive power. Holding fast to the truth despite the gaslighting denials of those who wield authority over them is integral to who they are. And knowing the truth was insufficient, they were compelled to act on it. Not all trans women are heroic truth-tellers, sure, but a surprising number of trans women I have known in public and private life are more courageous than anyone should need to be. I don’t know why trans sisters have been moved to risk and sacrifice so much, in different fields. I do know that the changes their revelations demand are not milquetoast solutions like “better oversight” or “more transparency.” The barriers and costs to these whistleblowers of speaking out are so much greater, and their critiques are indifferent to whether you like them or not.  These sisters know what power truly looks like before it dons a pantsuit, pussy-hat, and professional smile.

Zhang’s criticisms of Facebook stick to her area of specialist knowledge, cutting narrow but deep. Unlike Haugen, she doesn’t claim “Mark” (Zuckerberg) is doing his best but is in over his head. Zhang says that Facebook systematically downgrades the priority of poorer, less prominent countries, refusing to spend the resources necessary to stop dictators from exploiting the platform’s baked-in elements to manipulate their own citizens. This is a far more devastating criticism, affecting many millions of people around the world. It goes to the heart of the business model; if Facebook can afford to be present globally, it can afford to invest in protecting the world’s most fragile democracies.

People are finally catching on. A UK parliamentary committee just invited Zhang to give evidence. I hope they look further than the incremental solutions so beloved of the management class, and instead open their minds to the possibilities that appear when you understand that progress will only happen when you tear down its quiet coercion and unequal distribution, instead of merely changing its face. To truly understand the vindictive, velvet-gloved power wielded by Facebook, we all need to understand that the harms women like Zhang and Haugen have exposed as whistleblowers are not exceptional. They’re not “abuses” of the platform, but simply what happens when third parties use it as it was designed to be used. And it won’t be fixed by asking nicely, because asking nicely never brought down a rotten system.

If we roll with the obvious narrative, that acceptable tech critique is defined around a “default whistleblower”—a white, cis, middle management American woman who was fine with it all until one day she wasn’t— we choose to avert our eyes from the worst, most systemic harms. We choose to pretend that it’s just “too hard” to find structural solutions that would stop the slow violence of for-profit hate, which is precisely Facebook’s business model. By centering white, corporate feminism in all questions that affect all kinds of women and girls, we’ll make exactly the same, systemic error Facebook does: prioritize fixing more prominent but much less serious harms.

Zhang did what she had to do because she knew that power lies. Power lies, above all, to and through those who covet it the most. To honor Zhang’s courage, we should do as she has done: see things exactly as they are, and do what truth demands.

Maria Farrell

Maria Farrell

Maria Farrell is an Irish writer and keynote speaker on technology and the future. Now based in London, she has worked in tech policy for twenty years in Paris, Brussels, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFarrell.

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