The American attention span is short these days, and so you’re forgiven if you forgot that as recently as January people thought very seriously that Mark Zuckerberg might run for president in 2020. It wasn’t an absurd suggestion: The 33-year-old wunderkind helmed arguably the most important American company since Microsoft, in an industry whose leaders have since the days of Steve Jobs held a revered status in America as forward-thinking arbiters of the future. Zuckerberg’s well-publicized stump tour of the country’s heartland last year certainly didn’t ease the minds of skeptics.
Things change fast, especially in tech. This week, Zuckerberg arrived in Washington under starkly different circumstances to explain to a scowling tribunal of lawmakers on Capitol Hill why Facebook, a company whose user base amounts to a quarter of the world’s population, had systematically failed to protect the private information of its users and to moderate the information to which they were exposed.
Over a collective nine hours of inquisition, an alternately anxious, defensive, bored, and weather-beaten Zuckerberg — who sat on a thick cushion that made him seem taller than his 5 feet, 7 inches — attempted to convince members of Congress that Facebook was sorry for its lapses, actively working to rectify them for the future and open to new laws that would regulate social media companies. The CEO declined to say much about this last point.
Congress was unimpressed. His testimony before a joint Senate panel the day prior had been a low-kilowatt catastrophe: a demonstration, more than anything else, that lawmakers know very little about the social media platforms they hope to regulate. (At one point, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is 84, asked Zuckerberg how Facebook makes its money. “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied with a mix of reverence and astonishment. A GIF from that moment is one of many memes that have since gone viral.)
Meanwhile the House watched, eager to avoid the mistakes of their colleagues in the upper chamber. On Wednesday, when they had their chance to grill the social media giant, the several dozen members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee pressed him on a loosely confederated array of topics — from the dearth of racial diversity in Facebook’s C-suite to the fact that the platform was reportedly being used to traffic Fentanyl and recruit young jihadis to ISIS.
It was occasionally crackling theater, but the conversation mostly revolved around the issues that had created the storm clouds of public outrage hanging over Zuckerberg in the first place. Last month, media outlets reported that a shady data-mining firm with links to Republican operatives known as Cambridge Analytica had acquired the personal information of approximately 87 million Americans — information that these users had unknowingly supplied by taking an innocuous personality quiz on the site. This, along with the older news that Russian actors had used Facebook pages and ads to “sow discord” ahead of the 2016 presidential election, fomented the core anxiety of this moment of reckoning: the realization of just how much power sites like Facebook hold in twenty-first-century America.
“Facebook has grown so big, so fast,” Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, said in the first hour of the hearing. “It is no longer the company that you started in your dorm room. Instead it’s one of the great American success stories. That much influence comes with enormous social responsibility, on which you have failed to act and to protect and to consider.”
Rush, who in the 1960s was active in the civil rights movement, also gave a more damning appraisal. “I was personally a victim of COINTELPRO,” he told Zuckerberg, referring to the Cold War-era domestic counterintelligence program that illicitly spied on and smeared individuals and groups deemed subversive, among them civil rights leaders. “Your organization, your methodology in my opinion is similar… Mr. Zuckerberg, what is the difference between Facebook’s methodology and the methodology of the American political pariah J. Edgar Hoover?”
“It’s an important question,” Zuckerberg responded. It wasn’t clear if he was serious.
When Zuckerberg was pressed to explain how the company was responding to address its past oversights, his answers were thin and repetitive. He repeatedly said that Facebook was auditing third-party actors on the site that may have had wrongful access to users’ private data, but could not or would not elaborate. The members of the House committee, many of whom had watched the Senate hearing, exercised little patience for repetition and were quick to call him out.
“Here’s what I do know,” she continued. “You have trackers all over the web. Practically on all websites we go to we all see the Facebook share or like button. It doesn’t matter whether you have a Facebook account. Through those tools, Facebook is able to collect information on all of us.”
Throughout the inquisition, Facebook’s stock ticked upwards. When Zuckerberg left the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, he may have been the pariah du jour in the court of public opinion, but the fact remains that he was departing mostly unscathed. The two days of dialogue between the executive and the lawmakers who could be regulating him had been diffuse and materially unproductive.
Tech watchers noted that Congress’ limited understanding of the subject at hand meant that any meaningful regulation was still far off. Meanwhile, more cynical political watchers observed that many of the lawmakers who engaged in the more fiery exchanges are up for reelection this November and would need good clips for their campaign ads.
“I’m encouraged that Facebook is willing to make changes, but I am concerned that you are only acting now out of concern for your brand,” Rep. Paul Tonko of New York said to Zuckerberg at one point. Indeed.