By: Derek Demeri
On: November 30, 2021
What is a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is someone, typically an employee, who works to expose activities and information held within a company that are illicit, illegal, or unsafe in nature. This can be at a private company, a public institution, or even a government agency or organization. Oftentimes, the actions impact the wellbeing and financial stability of the public, take advantage of certain circumstances, or endanger the safety of the public. Being a whistleblower often involves the individual taking private documents from the organization to then share publicly, which sometimes leads to repercussions against them for their choice.
What did the Facebook Whistleblower allege happened at Facebook?
Frances Haugen, the recent Facebook whistleblower, states that she was hired by Facebook in 2019 as part of their Civic Integrity division, which was used to address risks to elections and other government activities through the spread of misinformation. This was extremely important to her, as she had lost a close friend because of online conspiracy theories. However, after the 2020 elections, Haugen alleges that Facebook decided to dissolve the Civic Integrity division entirely, meaning that there were no safeguards against the spread of political misinformation and propaganda. Additionally, Haugen states that one of the other main issues was Facebook’s decision to change their algorithms in 2018. Because these algorithms are used to help Facebook users find engaging content related to their previous clicks, searches, and history, misinformation and “angry” content were seen by Facebook as necessary to keep users on their website. The engagement offered by this misinformation kept users coming back to the websites, ensuring that Facebook’s ad revenue would keep increasing. She also alleges that many fringe and extremist groups were known to be using Facebook as a platform to spread hateful messages and false information, but Facebook did little to prevent them from doing so, and perhaps even encouraged the spread of this information for additional click revenue. Finally, Haugen also alleged that a study generated by Facebook indicated that its Instagram app has contributed to mental health disorders in children and teenagers, particularly girls.
What was Facebook’s Response?
Facebook and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg first attempted to discredit the whistleblower by issuing a statement that questioned her knowledge of the company and its actions, stating that she had worked for the company for less than two years, had no access to the reports in question, and had not attended any meetings with executives in which these topics were discussed. The company also released a blog post that defended itself by claiming they did not value profits over protecting the community, and the allegations against Instagram were inaccurate. Zuckerberg also sent an internal memo to Facebook employees, in which he systematically addressed each of Haugen’s allegations and claimed that the company was doing the exact opposite of everything she said, essentially stating that Facebook cares more about its users than its profits.
How does the Law Protect the Facebook Whistleblower?
There are a couple of laws that could protect Haugen from legal action taken by Facebook for her whistleblowing actions. First is the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, a Wall Street reform act that expanded protections for whistleblowers and created extended prohibitions against retaliatory actions. The second is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created after the fall of large companies like Enron, which works to protect investors and employees from fraudulent activities by corporations.
Could Facebook sue the Whistleblower?
In theory, Facebook could sue whistleblowers like Haugen, but the success of such a lawsuit is questionable. As previously mentioned, there are laws in place that exist to protect private employees from retaliation by their employers for whistleblowing on illegal or immoral actions. However, because Haugen likely signed a nondisclosure agreement with Facebook, and then leaked some of these documents to the press, Facebook could allege that she broke her nondisclosure agreement or that her comments were defamatory to the company. Facebook would only be able to succeed in a defamation lawsuit if it could prove that Haugen’s statements were false. Also, Facebook would likely face significant blowback from the public for pursuing such a case, but may do so to intimidate future whistleblowers from coming forward for fear of legal action.
Whistleblowers are Protected from Retaliation
Whether you are an employee of a private corporation or a government employee, there are several important laws that protect your right to be a whistleblower against illegal or illicit actions taken by your employer. Whether it be the previously mentioned acts for private employers, or the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) that covers federal and state employees, it is important to remember that it is illegal for your employer to take retaliatory action against you for whistleblowing.
Contact Zeff Law Firm for a Consultation If you have a Whistleblower Claim
If you feel that your employer has been involved in illegal or illicit behaviors and actions, you have the right to come forward with a whistleblower claim without fear of legal retaliation. Contact the skilled attorneys at Zeff Law Firm, who are familiar with whistleblowing case law and are happy to meet you for a consultation about your case.