Three bright and driven women with ground-breaking ideas made significant — if very different — marks on the embattled tech industry in 2021.
Frances Haugen, Lina Khan and Elizabeth Holmes — a data scientist turned whistleblower, a legal scholar turned antitrust enforcer and a former Silicon Valley high-flyer turned criminal defendant — all figured heavily in a technology world where men have long dominated the spotlight. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk.
Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, went public with internal documents to buttress accusations that the social network giant elevated profits over the safety of users. At 32, Khan is the youngest person ever to lead the Federal Trade Commission, an agency now poised to aggressively enforce antitrust law against the tech industry.
Holmes, once worth $4.5 billion on paper, is now awaiting a jury’s verdict on fraud charges that she misled investors and patients about the accuracy of a blood-testing technology developed at her startup Theranos. Her story has become a Silicon Valley morality tale — a founder who flew too high, too fast — despite the fact that male tech executives have been accused of similar actions or worse without facing charges.
Haugen joined Facebook out of a desire to help it address misinformation and other threats to democracy. But her frustration grew as she learned of online misinformation that stoked violence and abuse — and which Facebook wasn’t addressing effectively.
So in the fall of 2021, the 37-year-old Haugen went public with a trove of Facebook documents that cataloged how her former employer was failing to protect young users from body-image issues and amplifying online hate and extremism. Her work also laid bare the algorithms Big Tech uses to tailor content that will keep users hooked on its services.
“Frances Haugen has transformed the conversation about technology reform,” Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who became one of its leading critics, wrote in Time magazine.
Facebook the company, which has since renamed itself Meta Platforms, has disputed Haugen’s assertions, although it hasn’t pointed to any factual errors in her public statements. The company instead emphasizes the vast sums it says it has invested in safety since 2016 and data showing the progress it’s made against hate speech, incitement to political violence and other social ills.
A day after an outage that lasted several hours, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the U.S. Senate about Facebook’s platforming of extreme views and reports that it and Instagram created body image issues among young people. CNBC Reporter Lauren Feiner explains why there’s support on both sides of the aisle to regulate the Big Tech company.
Haugen was well-positioned to unleash her bombshell. As a graduate business student at Harvard, she helped create an online dating platform that eventually turned into the dating app Hinge. At Google, she helped to make thousands of books accessible on mobile phones and to create a fledgling social network. Haugen’s creative restlessness flipped her through several jobs over 15 years at Google, Yelp, Pinterest and of course Facebook, which recruited her in 2018.