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Watching Facebook and Senate Hypocrisy in Real-Time

Zuck takes a mauling in a bipartisan pigpile – but the members seem more interested in influencing Facebook than decreasing its power

Mark Zuckerberg testified before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/REX Shutterstock

It’s heading into the evening and it’s just been announced that if we continue on the current pace, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will still be testifying before the Senate after midnight.

I’d hoped to post complete notes from the whole session, but I’m going to have to give up and make a few observations about the direction of what we’ve seen so far from this extraordinary hearing. As noted in a recent Rolling Stone feature on the subject, Facebook has been all over the news, ubiquitous in a bad way for the first time in its history.

Blamed variously for helping elect Donald Trump, aiding the Russians and providing communications support for everyone from terrorists to spies, Facebook has become the bogeyman for members of both parties. Thanks in large part to the Cambridge Analytica story and the Russiagate furor (and specifically the Internet Research Agency indictments), the Senate decided that the company was sufficiently on the public’s minds and that its nerd-emperor CEO needed to be dragged in for public questioning.

Here’s how the session went:

2:33: Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, noting that 44 Senators are participating in the hearing – a major indication of how badly members of both parties wanted a sound bite of themselves whacking Zuckerberg – takes a dig at Zuck at the outset. "[44] may not seem like a large group by Facebook’s standards," Grassley says, with unmistakable sarcasm. It’s sort of an "our-44-Senators-can-beat-up-your-two-billion-users" comment.

2:37: While South Dakota Republican John Thune rambles through his opening remarks, Zuck, who looks fully eight and a half years old, seems to be trying to remember how many data points he’s harvested about Thune and what the weirdest one was.

2:42: Diane Feinstein is summarizing the IRA and Cambridge Analytica stuff. Zuck’s pale blue suit and tie ensemble are very reassuring and non-scary, very Menendez-brothers.

2:50: Bill Nelson from Florida leads aggressively: "Let me just cut to the chase – if you and other social media companies don’t get your act together, we won’t have privacy anymore." He goes on to talk about how we’re all glued to screens and tablets from morning to night, and chastises Zuckerberg for repeatedly misusing data. 

It’s not that Nelson is wrong, but the randomness of this is so strange. Facebook and other social media platforms have been using the same data-mining techniques for ages, and of course have been partners with the government at times in its use of such techniques – including partnerships with the NSA in its PRISM program. But suddenly Facebook is getting hammered by both parties in the most aggressive manner. Zuckerberg is a uniquely unsympathetic person in a lot of ways, but the rapacious and completely illegal government surveillance programs to this day tolerated by this same U.S. Senate undercut the effect of the outrage they’re all going to demonstrate today.

2:55: Zuck, presidentially, "assumes full responsibility" for a lot of the bad stuff that’s happened – Cambridge Analytica, etc. It’s a smart tactic that, as it does for presidents, deflects from the institutional breadth and power of his organization, and focuses on the human being, who can make a personal play for sympathy. His version of the rhetorical trick: "I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here."

2:57: Good advice for anyone who happens to be high on anything today: Do NOT simultaneously listen to both Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the Senate, and Sesame Street’s Ernie singing the 1970 classic, "Rubber Duckie."

2:58: Zuck repeats the core mantra that his greatest mission is to "bring people together." Facebook loves dopey corporate aphorisms and this one is not going to work when it comes to deflecting public anger, especially since an internal memo recently leaked in which executive Andrew "Boz" Bosworth said that if "someone dies in a terrorist attack" that it’s all good, because "we connect people."

Like its new catchphrase, "Move fast with stable infrastructure" (updated from the original proto-libertarian "Move fast and break things"), "We bring people together" isn’t going to fly all that well with a pissed-off public.

3:08: Nelson challenges Zuck: Does the data belong to the user, or to the company? Zuck answers unequivocally that "the first line of the terms of service" tells users they control the information they enter. But Zuckerberg just finished telling Nelson that there is currently no option for users to disable the use of personal data for ads, arguing that ads are the only way to provide free service.

So that’s fucked.

3:10: Thune blasts Zuck’s "14-year history" of apologies for bad decisions and asks why we should listen to this new one. Zuck looks back blankly, appears to be counting Thune’s eyebrows.

3:12: This is the scary part. Zuck explains that for the first 10-to-12 years of the company’s existence, he viewed the company’s "responsibility" as ending with giving people "tools" to connect with each other, so they could "do good things." But he now understands the company’s "responsibility" is greater, and that they have to be more "proactive."

But what does that mean? Will they use algorithms and "content review" to drive down offensive content and/or what he calls "bad activity?" If so, how will those determinations be made?

The terrifying part of this controversy, to me, is the possibility that Facebook will ultimately engage in a kind of policing/censorship activity that all of these Senators may actually favor – perhaps driving down or eliminating certain kinds of alternative or dissenting speech in return for regulatory relief.

3:23: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, one of the first soft-ballers, is one of the few people present who seems to think the whole controversy is dumb. His point seems to be, if you want a free service, don’t bitch if that company then mines your data to sell ads.

"Some profess themselves shocked, shocked that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers," Hatch says. "Did any of these individuals ever stop to ask themselves why Facebook and Google don’t charge for access? Nothing in life is free. Everything involves tradeoffs. If you want something without having to pay money for it, you’re gonna have to pay for it in some other way."

He serves up this question for Zuckerberg: How do you survive financially?

"Senator, we run ads," says Zuckerberg, trying not to seem too pleased.

3:26: Maria Cantwell’s aides clearly are trying to get a sound bite on the news by having her ask Zuck if he’d heard that people were calling Palantir "Stanford Analytica." The line falls like a dead bird on the Senate floor.

3:28: Cantwell asks Zuckerberg if he’s ever heard of the infamous John Ashcroft-era "Total Information Awareness" data-dominance program, and he says no.

It’s probably not because he’s lying, but because Zuckerberg is basically a millennial for whom the early Bush years happened when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

3:37: Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker asks Zuckerberg if it’s true that Facebook collects data on people even after they log off the site. Zuck pauses, looking like Daffy Duck after having his bill shot off, and tries to tell Wicker that he’ll have his people follow up.

Wicker, irritated: "You don’t know?"

Zuck gives a verbose passive-voice answer about how there are cookies on the Internet and it would be possible to track people "between sessions," but only to improve the user experience, blah blah blah.

Short answer: yup, they monitor us after we leave the site.

3:44: Lindsey Graham down-homing it, saying: "If I buy a Ford and don’t like it, ah can buy a Chevy." He asks if he doesn’t like Facebook, what can he go to instead? Zuckerberg struggles to name a main competitor.

Graham asks flat out: "Are you a monopoly?"

Zuckerberg says, "It doesn’t feel like it." Laughter in the gallery.

When Lindsey Graham is haranguing a company for being insufficiently enthusiastic about regulation, something odd is going on.

It’s an unusual synergy. Conservatives hammer Facebook because of the widespread impression that Silicon Valley tilts Democratic, while Democrats are hammering Facebook because of its central role in the Russiagate narrative.

3:50: Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar asks a question about whether it’s possible that Cambridge Analytica’s data is possibly "stored in Russia" that is so incoherent that Zuckerberg struggles to find an appropriately insincere answer.

Zuckerberg seems more commanding as it becomes clear that the Senators have little-to-no technical understanding of the issues involved. It’s worse than a banking hearing by far.

3:59: Well, here’s the sound bite for tonight’s news! Dick Durbin asks Zuckerberg if he’d be comfortable disclosing what hotel he stayed in last night.

Zuck first squirms, then says, in drawn-out fashion, "N-n-n-oooo." Which makes him look like an unparalleled-in-history asshole for having collected similar data points about two billion people.

4:17: Senator Ted Cruz asks, "Does Facebook consider itself a neutral public forum?" He’s going after the Gizmodo stuff about Facebook employees allegedly suppressing conservative speech. Zuck obliges by giving Cruz a sound bite, to the effect that Silicon Valley "is an extremely left-leaning place," and this is a source of concern for him.

Zuckerberg, who moments ago seemed cocky when he said he didn’t need a break, and was happy to go for 15 minutes more, now seems to have made a PR error, coming off a little like James Damore in this obnoxious-on-both-sides colloquy with Cruz. It’s almost impossible not to come across as sympathetic when Ted Cruz is your antagonist, but Zuckerberg pulls it off a little here.

4:59: Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware hammers Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook allowed real estate advertisers to only advertise to white people, in clear violation of the law. After promises to fix the problem, it hadn’t been addressed "fully" a year later, according to ProPublica.

Zuckerberg responds with his now customary origin-story tale about how Facebook started in his dorm room, without money or without A.I. to help him root out bad thingies. But of course an ad program that offers the service to exclude non-white ad targets is something done consciously, not an oversight that you’d need A.I. to catch.

5:09: Republican Ben Sasse asks Zuckerberg if social media platforms hire consultants to help them increase the addictive dopamine hits users get from their online experience. Zuckerberg says no, which is a direct contradiction of what original developer Sean Parker said about Facebook just last year.

The hearing goes on and on, with each Senator trying to get in a viral zinger.

A subtext of the hearing was a vague sense that some of these politicians would rather shape Facebook’s power than decrease it. Lindsey Graham was the only Senator to really raise the possibility of antitrust action. Because the government itself has been engaged in vast and illegal data-mining operations for so long, the outrage expressed against Facebook today was not terribly convincing.

But Zuckerberg came across as even more phony than his interrogators. He’s an unhealthily un-self-aware business overlord who unfortunately has been convinced by someone to have political aspirations, which made him care how he came across on C-SPAN a lot more than someone like Jamie Dimon, who’ll come to the Hill and make Senators wet themselves with his unabashed presentation of pure greed.

Zuckerberg, on the other hand, kept frantically switching faces in search of what made him seem more human – he alternated throughout between libertarian, liberal and arch-capitalist personas. None of them really worked. Of course, five years from now, when he’s emperor of the universe, none of this will matter…

Mark Zuckerberg testified before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees in Washington Tuesday. Watch highlights below.