It might, as one senator put it, be remembered as “the big tobacco jaw-dropping 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 to heel.
The whistleblower’s inside knowledge and clear, crisp answers to senators’ questions – with elaborate hand gestures for emphasis – was all the more damning because of her measured tone and lack of hyperbole.
“Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content,” she said in a voice of authority that may prove a tipping point in government efforts to curb the power of big tech.
She was clearly preaching to the converted as senator after senator joined her in scathing criticism of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, for putting profits before people.
Zuckerberg was memorably played by Jesse Eisenberg (later the supervillain Lex Luthor in Superman) in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film The Social Network. Should a sequel be made, the role of Haugen might go to a similarly top-notch actor like Reese Witherspoon.
Having burst into the public consciousness on the flagship 60 Minutes current affairs program on Sunday, Haugen passed a chorus of clicking cameras to enter the compact Senate committee room at 10.02am.
The 37-year-old sat down at a long table with a blue folder marked “whistleblower aid” in gold letters. She unscrewed a green bottle of Mountain Valley water and took a sip. Above her hung a giant chandelier and ornately moulded ceiling and cornicing. Light shimmered off marble panels around the room. Haugen’s face was beamed back to her from three giant TV screens. Her microphone came with a red digital countdown clock for each senator’s questions.
A former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, she has come forward with tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in the company’s civic integrity unit.
The impunity of Facebook, which has 2.8 billion users worldwide and nearly $1tn in market value, is a rare issue that unites Democrats and Republicans, so she was never likely to face a tough cross-examination.
Democrat Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Senate commerce subcommittee, gaveled the session in and argued that Facebook knows that its products are addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth,” he said.
He added: “Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror” – but instead, he noted, Zuckerberg was going sailing.
Haugen was a compelling witness. “I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” she said. “But I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke 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 happens inside of Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world.”
The hearing was taking place just a day after an extraordinary technical glitch put Facebook offline and, somewhat humiliatingly, forced it to communicate via Twitter.
Haugen observed: “Yesterday we saw Facebook taken off the internet. I don’t know why it went down, but I know that for more than five hours, Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”
She agreed with the big tobacco analogy, noting that Facebook’s own research into Instagram found children saying that it made them feel bad but they could not give it up and always craved the next click. She also warned that Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system is “fanning ethnic violence” in Ethiopia and other countries.
The mood could hardly have been more different from when Zuckerberg himself has testified before Congress, offering robotic answers that exposed members’ lack of digital savvy. Haugen observed: “There is no one currently holding Mark to account. The buck stops with Mark.”
She argued that company should declare “moral bankruptcy” if it wants to seek healing and reconciliation.
Haugen’s website says she was born in Iowa City, Iowa, the daughter of two professors and grew up attending the Iowa caucuses with her parents, “instilling a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation”.
She has a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in business from Harvard. Before being recruited by Facebook in 2019, she worked for 15 years at tech companies including Google, Pinterest and Yelp.
She said: “Congress can change the rules Facebook plays by and stop the harm it is causing. I came forward, at great personal risk, because I believe we still have time to act. But we must act now.”
About 30 aides, journalists and members of the public watched from two rows of seats behind Haugen and, as so often at such hearings, senators drifted in and out over the three hours. Senator Roger Wicker sought to reassure Haugen: “You see some vacant seats. This is a pretty good attendance for a subcommittee.”
Blumenthal gaveled the session out at 1.22pm, thanking for Haugen for “doing a real public service”. She smiled, calm to the end, and departed clutching two bottles of water. Her work was done and Facebook’s already very bad week had just got worse.
Many observers were asking: if this is not enough now for Congress to act, what is?