It could, as one senator put it, be remembered as “the great tobacco dazzling moment of truth”.
The truth-teller was former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, who appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday to testify that the online platform deliberately harmed children, just as cigarette manufacturers did before they were held accountable.
The whistleblower’s insider knowledge and the clear, straightforward answers to the senators’ questions – with artful hand gestures for emphasis – were all the more devastating because of their measured tone and lack of exaggeration.
“Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content,” she said in a voice of authority that could prove to be a turning point in the government’s efforts to contain the power of big tech.
She clearly preached to converts as a senator after the senator joined her in criticizing Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, for putting profits before the people.
Zuckerberg was memorably played by Jesse Eisenberg (later super villain Lex Luthor in Superman) in the Aaron Sorkin-written film The Social Network. Should a sequel come out, the role of Haugen could go to an equally high-profile actor like Reese Witherspoon.
After Haugen entered the public consciousness on Sunday through the flagship of the 60-minute newscast, at 10:02 a.m. he passed a choir of clicking cameras to enter the compact meeting room of the Senate Committee.
The 37-year-old sat at a long table with a blue folder with the words “Whistleblower Help” written in gold letters. She unscrewed a green bottle of Mountain Valley water and took a sip. A huge chandelier and intricately sculpted ceilings and cornices hung above her. Light shimmered from marble slabs across the room. Haugen’s face was reflected back on her from three huge television screens. Her microphone was equipped with a red digital countdown clock for any senator’s questions.
As a former product manager on Facebook’s civic disinformation team, she submitted tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents that she secretly copied before quitting her job in the company’s civic integrity department.
The impunity of Facebook, which has 2.8 billion users worldwide and a market value of nearly $ 1 trillion, is a rare problem that unites Democrats and Republicans, so it has likely never been subjected to harsh cross-examination.
Democrat Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the Senate Trade Subcommittee, opened the meeting, arguing that Facebook knows its products are addicting, like cigarettes. “Technology now faces this great moment of truth that is mind-boggling to tobacco,” he said.
He added: “Our children are the victims. Young people who look in the mirror today feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg should look at himself in the mirror ”- but instead, he noticed, Zuckerberg went sailing.
Haugen was a convincing witness. “I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” she said. “But I’m here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, fuel divisions and weaken our democracy.”
She described Facebook’s lack of transparency and said it shows the need for congressional oversight. “Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what is happening inside Facebook. The company is deliberately hiding important information from the public, from the US government, and from governments around the world. “
The hearing came just a day after an outrageous technical error took Facebook offline and forced it, somewhat humiliatingly, to communicate on Twitter.
Haugen remarked, “Yesterday we saw Facebook being taken off the Internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know Facebook hasn’t been used for more than five hours to deepen rifts, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel guilty. “
She agreed with the big tobacco analogy, noting that Facebook’s own research on Instagram found that kids said it made them feel bad, but they couldn’t give up and always longed for the next click. She also warned that Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system “fuels ethnic violence in Ethiopia and other countries.”
The mood could hardly have been more different than at the time when Zuckerberg himself testified before the congress and offered robot answers that exposed the members’ lack of digital competence. Haugen remarked: “There is currently no one holding Mark accountable. The money ends with Mark. “
She argued that companies should declare “moral bankruptcy” if they want to seek healing and reconciliation.
Haugen’s website says she was born in Iowa City, Iowa, to two professors and grew up on the Iowa caucuses with her parents, “a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation.”
She holds a degree in computer engineering and a master’s in business administration from Harvard. Before joining Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at tech companies like Google, Pinterest, and Yelp.
She said, “Congress can change the rules by which Facebook plays and stop the damage it does. I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act. But we have to act now. “
About 30 helpers, journalists and citizens watched from two rows of seats behind Haugen and, as is so often the case at such hearings, senators strolled in and out during the three hours. Senator Roger Wicker tried to reassure Haugen: “You see some vacancies. That’s a pretty good presence for a subcommittee. “
Blumenthal closed the session at 1:22 pm and thanked Haugen for “doing a real public service”. She smiled, calmly to the end, and walked away with two bottles of water in hand. Their job was done, and the already bad week on Facebook had gotten worse.
Many observers asked, if this is not enough for Congress to act, then what?