It could, as one senator put it, be considered “tobacco’s breathtaking great moment of truth”.
The truth-teller was former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, appearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify that the online platform knowingly harms children, just as cigarette makers did before they were. brought into line.
The whistleblower’s insider knowledge and crisp answers to senators’ questions – with elaborate hand gestures to insist – were all the more overwhelming due to her measured tone and lack of hyperbole.
“Facebook knows they are leading young users to anorexia content,” she said in an authoritative voice that could prove a turning point in government efforts to limit the power of the big boys. technologies.
She was clearly preaching to converts as a senator after the senator joined her in scathing criticisms of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, for putting profits before people.
Zuckerberg was memorably played by Jesse Eisenberg (later supervillain Lex Luthor in Superman) in the film written by Aaron Sorkin The Social Network. If a sequel were to be made, Haugen’s role could go to a top notch actor like Reese Witherspoon.
After bursting into public consciousness on the flagship news show 60 Minutes on Sunday, Haugen passed a chorus of clickable cameras to enter the compact Senate committee room at 10:02 a.m.
The 37-year-old sat at a long table with a blue folder marked “whistleblower’s aid” in gold letters. She unscrewed a green bottle of Mountain Valley water and took a sip. Above her hung a giant chandelier, a ceiling and richly molded cornices. The light sparkled on the marble panels around the room. Haugen’s face was reflected back to him by three giant TV screens. Its microphone was accompanied by a red digital countdown timer for questions from each senator.
A former product manager on Facebook’s civic disinformation team, she presented tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents that she secretly copied before quitting her job in the integrity unit corporate citizenship.
The impunity of Facebook, which has 2.8 billion users worldwide and nearly $ 1 billion in market value, is a rare problem that unites Democrats and Republicans, so it has never been likely to face difficult cross-examination.
Democrat Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee, opened the session and argued that Facebook knows its products are addictive, like cigarettes. “Technology is now facing this great moment of breathtaking truth about tobacco,” he said.
He added: “Our children are the victims. Teenagers today who look in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg should look at himself in the mirror ”- but instead, he noted, Zuckerberg was going 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 think Facebook’s products harm children, fuel division, 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’s going on inside Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, the US government, and governments around the world. “
The hearing took place just a day after an extraordinary technical glitch took Facebook offline and, somewhat humiliatingly, forced it to communicate via Twitter.
Haugen observed: “Yesterday we saw Facebook go off the Internet. I don’t know why it broke down, but I do know that for over five hours Facebook was not used to deepen divisions, destabilize democracies, and make young girls and women feel bad. in their body.
She agreed with the big tobacco analogy, noting that Facebook’s own searches on Instagram found kids saying it made them feel bad but couldn’t give it up and still craved the next click. . She also warned that Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system “stirs up ethnic violence” in Ethiopia and other countries.
The mood could hardly have been more different than when Zuckerberg himself testified before Congress, offering robotic responses that revealed members’ lack of digital literacy. Haugen observed: “There is currently no one holding Mark to account. The responsibility ends with Mark.
She argued that the company should declare “moral bankruptcy” if it is to seek healing and reconciliation.
Haugen’s website says she was born in Iowa City, Iowa, the daughter of two teachers and grew up attending Iowa caucuses with her parents, “instilling a strong sense of pride in democracy and in the responsibility of civic participation “.
She holds a computer engineering degree and a master’s degree in commerce from Harvard. Before being hired by Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at technology companies such as Google, Pinterest, and Yelp.
She said, “Congress can change the rules of Facebook and stop the damage it is doing. I came forward, risking my life, because I think we still have time to act. But we must act now.
About 30 assistants, reporters and members of the public watched from two rows of seats behind Haugen and, as so often in such hearings, senators entered and exited during the three hours. Senator Roger Wicker sought to reassure Haugen: “You see vacant seats. That’s a pretty good turnout for a subcommittee.
Blumenthal opened the session at 1:22 pm, thanking Haugen for “doing a real public service”. She smiled, calm until the end, and walked away clutching two bottles of water. His job was done, and Facebook’s already bad week just got worse.
Many observers wondered: if this is not enough now for Congress to act, what is it?