Ethics and the Facebook Whistleblower

If you haven’t seen it yet, 60 Minutes interviewed Fances Haugen about what’s happening inside the social media giant Facebook. Ms. Haugen has also discuss this in The Wall Street Journal and appeared before congress to testify. I’m going to refer you to the links above for the details related to why she decided to become a whistleblower because I want to focus on evaluating the ethics of whistleblowing and if there was enough justification for her to take this action.

I teach engineering ethics in my day job and whistleblowing is always an interesting topic with the students. Many have no idea what it is until you describe it. Then they immediately say something like “oh, it’s when you rat out someone or tattle on the company.” After discussing it for a little while, most students start to understand that whistleblowing has its place in society and that there are good and bad reasons someone might choose to become a whistleblower.

The engineering ethics text that we use, Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases by Harris, Jr., et al., lays out two primary reasons why someone might become a whistleblower (pg. 86):

  1. to prevent harm

  2. to avoid being complicit

It is clear that Ms. Haugen sought to address #1 above. She’s explicitly states that she’s concerned about Facebook’s practices (e.g., their focus on increasing engagement through enticing anger, hate, and envy) and their knowing neglect to adjust the algorithm against these issues. Her position on #2 is less clear. Based on what I’ve learned, we can at best only make assumptions which we should avoid doing.

Focusing our analysis on preventing harm, Harris, Jr., et al. further detail Richard DeGeorge’s idea that whistleblowing can be morally permissible or obligatory. They provide DeGeorge’s criteria for these categories:

Permissible if:

Obligatory if:

So were Ms. Haugen’s action permissible or obligatory according to these criteria?

Permissible Breakdown

Overall, there is just too much grey area here. I haven’t listened to everything Ms. Haugen stated or wrote, but it depends on what she tried to do within Facebook before she left the company. Let me explain.

Harm “serious and considerable”?

Reported to immediate supervisor?

Exhausted all other internal reporting options?

So were Ms. Haugen’s actions permissible (according to DeGeorge)? > It depends on some unknowns that may or may not have taken place internally at Facebook.

Obligatory Breakdown

Again, my thinking here is mixed. Let’s break things down.

Did she have documented evidence that will convince a “responsible, impartial observer”?

Can she provide strong evidence that the whistleblowing will “prevent the threatened serious harm”?

So were Ms. Haugen’s actions obligatory (according to DeGeorge)? > At this point, I would say no they were not. Primarily because I don’t think there is a convincing argument that her actions will prevent serious harm.


I’ve discussed that Ms. Haugen’s actions weren’t obligatory and there is too much grey area to determine if they were permissible.

This leads one to ask… Should she have spoken out?

Another question we could ask is… Is DeGeorge’s permissible/obligatory framework missing something important and, in turn, not an appropriate framework to analyze this situation?

I’ll intentionally leave these questions open for discussion and debate.