Toward the beginning of Tuesday’s Congressional hearing, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham asked Mark Zuckerberg about competition: “If I buy a Ford, and it doesn’t work well, and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”
The question appeared to confuse Facebook’s besuited CEO. The average American uses eight different services to keep in touch with people, Zuckerberg countered before Graham stepped in with a cutting follow-up: “You don’t think you have a monopoly?”
“It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg responded.
With this naive perception of Facebook’s place in the world, Zuckerberg hit on the real reason that his testimony has garnered such a sprawling reaction. This week’s hearings were never simply about the Cambridge Analytica leak, or Facebook’s lax reaction to misuse of its users data. Zuckerberg’s testimony is about bigger problems than the transparency of the advertisements that may sway our votes in coming elections, or the security of the information that is housed in the site. Our elected officials are demanding an answer to a more profound question. As Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan asked Zuckerberg a few hours later: “Do you think you’re too powerful?”
Apart from professing to welcome thoughtful regulation, Zuckerberg refuses to entertain an answer. That’s why, even as he scrambles to make it clear that he’s taking the scandal seriously by apologizing, updating features, apologizing, traveling to Washington DC to address Congressional leaders, and apologizing, the rage trained upon him continues to mount. Across the country, people joined watch parties to livestream the Congressional hearings, in which elected leaders grilled the 33 year-old CEO. Someone attended the Tuesday Senate hearing dressed as a Russian troll doll. Saturday Night Live lambasted him. A group of demonstrators stood holding photos of Zuckerberg’s head on long wooden sticks, chanting: “the internet is getting dark and we owe it all to Mark.”
This obsessive critique is uniquely trained on Zuckerberg. The American public, including both Facebook’s advertisers and its users, have come to believe Facebook is a monolith corporation that controls every aspect of a fundamental way that people share and receive information. Judging from the Saturday Night Live skit, or the newspaper headlines, or the 100 life-size Zuckerberg cardboard cutouts outside the hearings that say “Fix Fakebook,” the scandal has provided an opportunity to voice the many reasons people are afraid of Facebook’s power.
These questions have given way to existential concern that Facebook is bad for us–and its still-young founder cannot address its ills on his own. The problem Zuckerberg faces is running an empire that’s too big for any one entity to control. The largest virtual public square in the world, one that provides a communications tool to 2.2 billion users is overseen by one individual. Zuckerberg created something that is far bigger than himself, and he–along with the rest of us–failed to account for the unintended consequences in advance. We’re concerned about who gets access to our information, yes. But as yesterday’s Senate hearing revealed, we’re also concerned about many other ways Facebook is impacting our lives. We’re worried our children are becoming addicted to it. We’re concerned it’s quantifying and minimizing important relationships, and leaving us less connected. We are horrified by the images and posts that can crop up the platform, and we’re just as appalled by the idea that one private entity could decide what gets taken down. Now we are tasked collectively with figuring out how to steward this platform into the future, and we don’t think Zuckerberg is up to the task.
Consider some of the sentiments that arose during Tuesday’s Senate hearing. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse asked Zuckerberg whether he worries about social media addiction for his own children. He also worried that Zuckerberg would become the single arbiter of what constitutes hate speech, asking: “Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views?” (When asked to define hate speech on Tuesday, Zuckerberg dodged, saying: “I think that this is a really hard question.”) Multiple questions attempted to quantify the specific ways that Facebook tracks users. (Nevada Senator Dean Heller asked if Facebook was collecting the content of phone calls. It’s not, says Zuckerberg.) Several questions addressed automated bots and other sources of disinformation, potentially spread by foreign actors. Others addressed the role Facebook has played in spreading hateful messages that led to violence in other countries.
Zuckerberg has spent the past decade and a half benefitting from the
romanticism of the kid-in-a-dorm founder, the embodiment of the modern
These concerns are not intended to be an attack on Zuckerberg’s character. Arguably, Zuckerberg has spent the past decade and a half taking advantage of the forces of a free market and benefitting from the romanticism with which our culture has treated the kid-in-a-dorm founder, the embodiment of the modern American dream. In that way, we are all responsible for enabling the forces that led to Facebook. And despite the amounting outrage, Zuckerberg will emerge from these hearings relatively unscathed. Even if he got off to a bad start with a five-day silent treatment, Zuckerberg has handled himself well this week, answering questions patiently, even the one about whether Facebook is listening to users through their phones, a rumor long debunked.
The problem is that the premise is broken. Zuckerberg has traveled to Washington DC to restore the public trust in Facebook, and in himself. But it doesn’t matter so much anymore whether we believe him to be a competent, ethical leader. We do not trust that any one man—and one social media company—should be tasked with a responsibility as great as ensuring the safety and fairness of a communications service the size of Facebook. We should have never given him a power that great.
Mark Zuckerberg Answers for Facebook
These hearings provide a rare opportunity to grill Facebook’s CEO without interference. Here are the tough questions Congress should be asking.
The elected officials’ questions belies confusion about how Facebook works—do the networks users understand it any better?
Mark Zuckerberg is both a man and the embodiment of a company, so his silence around scandal has done irreparable harm.