It all started with a LinkedIn message.
Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz first connected with Frances Haugen, now known as the Facebook whistleblower, late last year. He was trying to meet more sources at Facebook to learn about how the company managed content on its platforms around the 2020 election.
He tried “the old LinkedIn spamming approach to source building,” he called it in an interview on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast.
That’s when reporters use the professional social network to message dozens of employees in the hopes of hearing back from one or two. I “did not hear back from anyone for a month,” Horwitz said.
But then, in December 2020, Facebook dissolved its civic integrity team, which had been charged with thorny issues about election interference and overall safety around the election.
“The day that I first heard from Frances was the day that the civic team got disbanded,” Horwitz said.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
He eventually earned Haugen’s trust -— and access to a trove of internal research from the company. But “the first thing that happened was, she vetted the hell out of me,” he said. It was clear that she was thinking about speaking out, but “I had no idea at the time that she was going to do something this substantial and this methodical.”
Horwitz said he learned that Haugen was deeply troubled by Facebook’s impacts around the world. She raised this point in her Congressional testimony on October 5: “My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning,” she said. “What we saw in Myanmar and now in Ethiopia are the opening chapters of a story so terrifying no one wants to read the end of it.”
But in her initial conversations with the Journal reporter, she wasn’t expecting to speak on Capitol Hill and become a familiar face to millions of people.
Following the dialogue on LinkedIn, the reporter and the source met in person and went for a “walk in the woods” in the hills near Oakland, California. Haugen tried to figure out his motivations and vice versa. And she suggested a pseudonym, “Sean,” as a tribute to a recently deceased friend.
Horwitz began to tell his editors about what “Sean” was sharing with him. And the Facebook Files series was born.
Looking back now, Horwitz says, Facebook Files was “the most important thing I’ve ever worked on.” And it’s not over yet — he says he could easily write many thousands more words right now. He confirmed that there are more stories in the works.
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