The Facebook CEO will testify in front of both the Senate and the House next week. Will it be memorable — or simply more of the same?
April 10 and 11, 2018 will likely create the kinds of memories for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that his own platform will remind him of for years to come. My guess is he’ll pass on the opportunity to “relive” those memories, or share them with his millions of followers. The whole thing will likely just be too painful to recount.
Then again, Zuckerberg’s testimony next week in front of a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, could prove to be the highlight of his already storied career. No matter what, it’s a historic moment — the world’s largest and most celebrated social media company, in the throes of an existential crisis driven by allegations of massive election fraud, being called to account by the world’s most powerful government, victim of samesaid fraud. It’s going to be riveting.
In preparation, Facebook has unleashed a blitz of activity. As Axios aptly put it: the company is “creating a highlight reel of privacy and accountability improvements for Zuckerberg to play for lawmakers next week.” During this remarkable past week, Zuckerberg and Sandberg choreographed a remarkable apology tour, including a Sunday interview and a rare Zuck press conference. During these interviews, both executives expressed remorse, acknowledged mistakes, and declared they’d do better. In concert, the company announced a slate of new policies and product tweaks. Among them:
- Third party data providers have been kicked to the curb.
- Many other APIs and data access points have been dramatically restricted, and the company also announced simplified privacy controls.
- Facebook announced it now supports the Honest Ads Act and will (as previously announced) label political and issues ads. Even further, it will pro-actively identify pages that seek to fan divisive political issues, and require transparency and review for those pages.
This all adds up to a lot of ammunition for Zuckerberg to use as he goes into the fight of his life in Washington next week. And it follows a well-worn path for the company: Ignore problems until they become too big to avoid, apologize, then break the problems down into component parts and engineer solutions for each.
But will it be enough?
It’s anyone’s guess. Facebook’s famous founder will face sixty or so Senators and Congresspeople from both sides of the aisle, and many of them will not be able to resist the urge to grandstand.
Let’s start with the fact that Mark Zuckerberg has “long resisted testifying in front of Congress,” as the Washington Post recently reported. That reluctance, which included sending a Facebook lawyer in his stead last Fall, has already set the young executive on the wrong side of many lawmakers’ ledger. It’s uncertain if he’ll be under oath (it’s not required, but it’s quite possible), but he’ll certainly be on the record, and the list of lawmakers with axes to grind ain’t short. To wit:
- Senator Jeff Flake, a lame duck Trump foe, has nothing to lose as a Republican member of the Judiciary committee, and will certainly want to dig into the role Facebook played in bringing Trump to power.
- Senator Kamala Harris is said to be weighing a Presidential bid in 2020, and will want to appear hard on Zuckerberg, but has to tread a fine line: Facebook is headquartered in her home state of California, and Facebook money will be key to her future campaigns.
- Senator Maria Cantwell is from Amazon and Microsoft country (Washington state), and will likely be briefed by lobbyists representing those two companies.
- Senator Ed Markey is consistently sharp on tech issues and will want to exercise his knowledge in front of a national audience.
- Senator Amy Klobuchar has been an animating force behind the Honest Ads Act and will certainly push Zuckerberg for more detail on issues of regulation.
And that’s just the Senate.
So what might Facebook’s CEO expect in terms of questions? Well, here are 38 possible questions from the reporters at BusinessWeek, but I’ll tell you the one I’d ask first: “Mr. Z, do you acknowledge that the issues raised by the recent controversy are not ones that one company, or one man, can possibly solve? That you need to put country and humanity before the interests of your company, and therefore not claim you can fix this yourself?”
To me, that’s the core question of next week: Will we continue believing that one man can fix this — a convenient narrative that allows us to duck the hard work of fixing our democratic society? Or will we finally acknowledge that Facebook’s travails are, in fact, symptomatic of far larger issues in our democracy, issues that only a far broader conversation can address?
I guess we’ll see soon enough.