Zuckerberg testifes this week. Here’s what to expect.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies this week before Congress, it’ll offer up a version of Zuckerberg we don’t normally get to see: A version where he’s on-camera, unscripted and answering tough questions.
For Congress, it’s a chance for politicians to bare their teeth and hold somebody accountable for the sins of the internet — diminished privacy, fake news and the polarization of ideas, issues that Facebook deals with more often than most.
For Zuckerberg, though, it’s a chance to humanize himself and his mission to connect everyone in the world. It will be up to Zuckerberg to convince American lawmakers that he not only understands Facebook’s responsibility and impact on society, but that he’s also got it all under control.
Which is all to say that this week will be more about political theater than it will be about political regulation.
Part of that is on lawmakers. The idea of a bipartisan bill passing through Congress right now doesn’t seem likely, especially considering that the Honest Ads Act — a bill proposed late last year that would require more transparency around online political ads — hasn’t been put to a vote in either the House or Senate in almost six months.
But the other part is by Facebook’s design. The company claims that it’s open to certain regulations, including The Honest Ads Act, and has already pushed to self-regulate. Facebook is also preparing to comply with strict GDPR privacy regulations in the EU next month, and has promised to apply the same policies to all of its users globally.
Essentially, Facebook is giving Congress less incentive to regulate it because it’s promising to regulate itself.
But even without regulation as a major concern this week, there is still a lot at stake — perhaps most importantly being Zuckerberg’s reputation, and by association, Facebook’s.
While Zuckerberg is a household name, he’s not a household face. It’s possible that many people have only ever heard Zuckerberg’s story through “The Social Network,” the 2010 Aaron Sorkin film that portrays Zuckerberg as an arrogant, antisocial engineer without much regard for anybody but himself. (“They just kind of made up a bunch of stuff,” Zuckerberg said in 2014.)
The Facebook CEO has come a long way since then, but he might face his toughest set of critics since going onstage in 2010 with Recode’s founders Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, an interview that left Zuckerberg so flustered and sweaty he had to take off his then-famous hoodie mid-interview.
Expect committee members to attack Zuckerberg hard, especially lawmakers like Sen. Kamala Harris from Facebook’s home state of California, who might want to leave an impression. The Congressional Black Caucus may also be tough on Zuckerberg, given the racist nature of some of the content that has survived on Facebook over the years.
The good news for Facebook is that Zuckerberg is a much better public speaker than he’s been in the past. He’s had lots of practice, including internal training and weekly Q&As with Facebook employees that doubled, at least early on, as practice sessions for Zuckerberg to get comfortable taking questions in front of a crowd. Just last week, on a rare 45-minute conference call with reporters, Zuckerberg handled questions with ease, sounding knowledgable and confident, but also like he actually understood that Facebook had screwed up.
That humility, and a firm understanding of what’s at stake, will be the key to whether Facebook and Zuckerberg survive this week unscathed. Expect Zuckerberg to point to all of the announcements the company has already made since the Cambridge Analytica story came to light — things like rewriting its terms of service and cutting ties with outside data providers it doesn’t know if it can trust.
If Facebook does this well, the hearings will likely be … boring. The worst-case scenario would be learning something new about how Facebook collects or uses people’s personal information.
Facebook’s goal should be no more surprises.
The hearings begin Tuesday at 2:15 pm ET. Here’s how to watch.
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