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Mark Zuckerberg’s Testimony on Cambridge Analytica Could Backfire on Congress

6 minute read

For all the risk facing Facebook when public hearings start on Tuesday, top aides on Capitol Hill worry that lawmakers could drive themselves into serious peril if they take detours into fringe theories or shaky political grievances. Yet that is precisely what many expect their bosses to do when the cameras go live.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made the rounds on Monday for private meetings with lawmakers ahead of Tuesday testimony before the a joint session of the Judiciary and Commerce committees, to be followed up by a turn in the House on Wednesday. The disclosures of massive data harvesting for political advantage put Facebook, a favorite platform for lawmakers, on its heels and in the hot seat.

Yet it’s the noise from the shadows that could drive headlines, top officials in both parties fret.

As idiosyncratic billionaire Zuckerberg tried to head off contentious confrontations before cameras — and perhaps save his own job as chairman and CEO of the social media giant — top political hands were quietly urging lawmakers to stay focused. These officials should not to heed their impulses that may drive the hearings into circus-caliber theatrics, they argued. There were few guarantees that lawmakers would control their impulses. After all, a video of a lawmaker aggressively scolding the Facebook chief would do very well on Facebook itself, and the activist base in both political camps tends to reward bravado over measured discourse.

That draw of drama — and the fundraising potential that follows — has top aides in both parties skittish. It is one of the few sentiments that has unified the professional staffs from both parties ahead of hearings that will be must-watch for activists, investors and the White House. There are very serious questions Facebook officials need to answer, especially as they pertain to what comes next for the social media leader, the extent to which its users’ data may be widely disseminated and the potential for Russia to, yet again, use that information to tailor political mayhem.

Yet that could be relatively boring and non-partisan — novelties in this election year when the full House and a third of the Senate face voters. The face-to-face meeting with Zuckerberg could prove a valuable vent for years of pent-up political steam. And that’s where leadership on both sides of the aisle and both ends of the Capitol find frayed nerves.

For Republicans, who control the House and the Senate, Silicon Valley and social media have long been seen as havens for liberals and elitists. GOP leadership worries that the questions may devolve into off-topic questions about algorithms that determine who sees what. The Republican National Committee, in the throes of the 2016 campaign, launched a petition arguing that “Facebook Must Answer for Conservative Censorship.” Conservative Peter Schweizer is ready to release a film, tentatively titled “The Creepy Line,” that targets the tech industry. (Schweizer partnered with then-Breitbart executive Steve Bannon on an earlier project, “Clinton Cash,” that planted seeds of doubt about her conduct and finances.)

Establishment-minded Republicans on the Hill have come to tolerate the cries of victimhood that have motivated scores of conservative voters to take action. It’s a good tactic to recruit volunteers and low-dollar donors. But, many worry, that pandering has now taken on the aura of reality — and many members believe it, other lawmakers think they owe it to voters to remedy it and still more think it would be a good clip to include in an email solicitation. One top aide to Senate Republicans called this “the tinfoil-hat road.”

Others, especially the Trump apologists, worry that any serious inquiry into the roles tech companies played in 2016 would undercut the President’s legitimacy. Even the suggestion that Trump didn’t win the White House on his own merits draws rage from Trump. They correctly note that the intelligence agencies intentionally did not issue a verdict on if Russia meddling had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 race, and this remains one of the most sensitive topics for Trump personally.

On the opposite side, Democratic aides and advisers worry that lawmakers may detour into side queries that have nothing to do with preventing the social media giants from being used again to skew the election discussion. The last thing they want is a “Hillary-would-have-won” recrimination session. (Worse yet? The “Bernie-would-have-won” corollary that returns to the incorrect allegations that the Democratic National Committee rigged the election for Clinton. The DNC is still struggling to raise cash.)

Top Democrats also are mindful that any questions about Trump’s legitimacy is precisely why Russia meddled in the election. Even after the voting ended — and months before it starts again for the 2018 elections — many Americans are uncertain in the cornerstones of the democratic process.

“We cannot be the bitter ones playing the top of last inning,” one senior Democrat says. “We have to be playing the bottom of this one, and the next one, and the one after that.”

At the Capitol, however, it is clear lawmakers have exhausted most of the their patience. A session last year, which included not just Facebook but also Google and Twitter, was a public flogging of the tech giants but yielded no tangible changes. Officials now know that session offered an incomplete accounting for just how powerful the internet giants have become.

Now, they want truth, contrition and perhaps action.

Aides from both parties expected the hearings to be brutal for Zuckerberg. After an hour-long meeting in the office of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a scrum of reporters chased Zuckerberg down the seventh-floor hallway trying to draw out a comment. Zuckerberg said nothing, but it offered a preview of what is making Capitol Hill officials nervous.

“This place is going to be a zoo,” one senior Hill official said. “And it will, of course, be chronicled in real-time on the smartphones.” How meta.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com