Zuckerberg: Ernesto Arias/Epa/REX/Shutterstock; American flag: MadamSaffa

Opinion

Our Politicians Have No Idea How Facebook Works—and Zuckerberg Knows It

Put a suit and tie on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, make him listen to a bunch of elderly U.S. Senators all trying to sound brainy about social media, and the man’s resemblance to Brent Spiner as Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation suddenly turns acute. That was our (and lots of other people's) main takeaway from his appearances this week before the Senate’s combined Commerce and Judiciary Committees and the House of Representatives, who between them boast more members than Kalamazoo’s fire department. It was entertaining mainly as a collision of two worlds without a lot in common except the English language – and sometimes, going by the pained look on Zuckerberg’s Edvard Munchkin face, barely even that.

All the same, both planets shared an interest in practicing PR gamesmanship at its finest. On the Senate’s end, simply summoning Zuckerberg to testify advertised that America’s legislators are taking online integrity seriously. (In media lingo, he’s not the easiest get.) So far as sound bites went, whatever they asked mattered less than the fact that they were asking him.

As for Zuckerberg, we all know how much he hates explaining himself or Facebook in adversarial circumstances. “Issue a pro forma apology and continue our voyage to world domination” must be the first and only sentence on the subject in the Facebook employee manual. But the social network has been losing accounts, Playboy’s included, in the wake of Cambridge Analytica’s 87 million privacy victims. Only Zuck-his-own-self would do to stanch the brewing epidemic of disillusion.

Aside from his confirmation that Facebook is cooperating with Robert Mueller’s Russiagate investigation, his testimony didn’t produce much in the way of news. Some of the time, he was struggling simply to describe his company’s operations to oldsters who can barely hit “Like” without feeling adventurous. (He had to explain more than once that Facebook doesn’t sell people’s personal data to advertisers, using its own internal resources to match up ads and target audiences instead.) And a lot of the time, he was pretending to sound upbeat about the looming government regulation he concedes is “inevitable,” but obviously wishes would just go away.
Congress’s misguided belief that it has any jurisdiction in the matter will always strike Zuckerberg as a form of insolence, no matter how he tries to hide it.
Nobody could get him to commit to supporting, let alone advocating for, any specific legislative proposal to protect online users’ privacy or shut down bots, fake news and hate speech on FB, because he’d much rather everybody just trusted Facebook to do its own self-policing. It plainly annoys him that not everybody can appreciate his creation’s inherent wonderfulness as vividly as he does. That’s why one question he evidently disliked was Lindsey Graham asking him to name his company’s major competitor—the point being, of course, that Facebook doesn’t really have one, leaving consumers few alternatives to feckless citizenship in Zuckerberg’s kingdom.

The comedy was that, if few of the lawmakers showed much familiarity with how Facebook works, Zuckerberg has clearly never felt much need to educate himself in how real-life interactions work. He didn’t even catch on that he was supposed to smile when 84-year-old Orrin Hatch joked about his colleagues’ naivete: “Some profess themselves shocked, shocked that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers.” True, Hatch was repeating the same misperception that Zuckerberg kept having to refute all afternoon. But on the other hand, has Zuck really never seen Casablanca?

When Dan Sullivan of Alaska tossed him a softball about his dorm-room-to-riches success story—“Only in America, would you agree with that?”—Zuckerberg demurred, saying “There are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.” Sullivan had to school him in Witness Patriotism 101: “You’re in front of a bunch of senators. The answer is ‘yes’!” Two hours in, to demonstrate how confident he was, he airily turned down an invite to take a break, not realizing that Orrin Hatch’s bladder may operate on a different timetable than his does and the pretense of leaving the choice up to him was only a courtesy.

No doubt, Zuckerberg also didn’t notice the novelty that made his Senate grilling unusual. By and large, the joint panel’s Republicans and Democrats were voicing the same concerns, since online privacy is an issue without any clear partisan divide. This lovely glimpse of a fairy-tale Senate responsibly mulling what was best for the country was only marred, predictably, by Ted Cruz, who used his time to make a sinister case that Facebook favors left-wing speech and suppresses conservative views. (This might come as news to Cruz’s 2.1 million FB followers, but never mind.) For whatever reason, though—because the fink routine was so preposterous, maybe?—Zuckerberg enjoyed the baiting. “That was fun!” he exclaimed when Cruz finally wrapped up, cracking his only genuine grin of the day.

On Wednesday, he moved over to the House for another hearing, looking increasingly nettled at having to rehash the same batch of apologies and disclaimers for a similar but lesser crew of Capitol Hill bozos. The big reveal was his acknowledgment that his own data had been compromised by Cambridge Analytica’s info filch. Whether that was true or not —who’s more likely to know how to guard his privacy online than Mark Zuckerberg, after all?—it was a shrewd way of recasting himself as just another citizen of Facebook Nation, not its benevolent despot.

But since he does think of it as a nation, Congress’s misguided belief that it has any jurisdiction in the matter will always strike him as a form of insolence, no matter how he tries to hide it. It must have been a relief for Zuckerberg to finally toss the suit in a dumpster, give the tie to a D.C. chambermaid as a souvenir, and get his stupid T-shirt back on.

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