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What to expect from Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony

Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Zuckerberg headed down to DC a day early.
By Hanna Kozlowska
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The time has come: Mark Zuckerberg, the 33-year-old CEO of Facebook, not known for his public speaking skills, is finally facing Congress, where he is sure to hear some tough questions and admonishments from lawmakers.

Members of three Congressional committees summoned Zuckerberg after the latest scandal to hit his company, in which the shadowy political consultant Cambridge Analytica obtained information of up to 87 million users without their permission. But they’ll also likely grill him on Russian meddling on the platform during the 2016 election, and the spread of disinformation.

What they’ll ask him

We have some hints as to what the lawmakers might focus on from the letters they’ve sent to Zuckerberg, as well as their public statements. They’ll want a detailed explanation of the Cambridge Analytica debacle, centered around the fundamental question: “How did you let this happen?”

The Senate Commerce committee letter asks what steps Facebook took to ensure that all parties that had access to the improperly shared information were truthful in their assertions that they had deleted it, and whether Facebook considered notifying those users whose data leaked out. The lawmakers also ask whether Facebook had complied with the 2011 consent decree it signed with the Federal Trade Commission, in which the company ensured the regulator it would not share user data without their permission.

Lawmakers will likely question Zuckerberg about Facebook’s policies at the time of the Cambridge Analytica breach in 2014, how they have changed since, and what the company is planning for the future. Another overarching question will be: “What are you doing to prevent a similar situation?” They’ll also want to know what is the danger of other such breaches coming to light.

“More than any one issue, I’m interested in Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the responsibility Facebook plans to take for what happens on its platform, how it will protect users’ data, and how it intends to proactively stop harmful conduct instead of being forced to respond to it months or years later,” Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, said in a statement, according to the the Washington Post.

They might ask about Facebook’s financial incentives, and whether the Cambridge Analytica breach, as well as Russian election interference, and the spread of fake news on the platform were made possible by Facebook’s ad-based business model. Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn told the Washington Post that she felt like the company has “turned their users into the product that they are selling.”

Zuckerberg’s Congressional representative, Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents Palo Alto, told the Mercury News that she wouldn’t go easy on the CEO, and that she would want to know what Facebook’s leadership knew about Russian interference on the platform. “If it’s reported in your advertising division that someone is paying for their ads with rubles, doesn’t that send up a red flag?” she said.

If the lawmakers take cue from various news analysis pieces published over the last several days, they could also ask him: “What will Facebook do to reduce its dependence on user data as a revenue source?” as Alex Webb asks at Bloomberg, or “How does fake news go viral and how does Facebook decide what people see or don’t see when on the website?” as April Glaser proposes at Slate.

The lawmakers will likely be focused on the implications of Facebook’s operations in the US—they could also bring up the UK, where the company faces similar scrutiny. But Facebook’s influence extends beyond the markets where it makes most of its money. Representatives of NGOs in Myanmar, where hate speech on the platform is pervasive and where social media has had a “determining role” in ethnic cleansing, according to the United Nations, sent Zuckerberg an open letter last week, in which they criticized the company’s efforts to curb violence.

“From where we stand, this case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency,” they write. To recognize the seriousness of Facebook’s global power, US lawmakers should also ask: “Why hasn’t Facebook taken more robust steps to curb life-threatening hate speech in Myanmar?”

What he might answer

Zuckerberg is known to be awkward in public appearances, with his remarks coming off as meticulously prepared and memorized rather than naturally flowing or at all improvised. He doesn’t like to give interviews, and the testimony is sure to be a massive test for the introverted CEO. According to The New York Times, Zuckerberg’s been given a “crash course in humility and charm,” with lessons from the likes of Reginald J. Brown, a former special assistant to George W. Bush.

We’ll have to wait to see how he weathers the pressure, but what we do know is what he will say in his prepared remarks in front of the House committee on Wednesday. Besides one point of his testimony, where he reveals that Facebook shut down accounts linked to Russian military intelligence, not much appears to be new. In fact, the remarks are at times carbon copy of what Zuckerberg has said as part of his apology tour in recent weeks in the media. After outlining all the good that Facebook offers the world, he will offer a mea culpa:

It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.

He will also outline all the steps Facebook has taken since the breach occurred in 2014 to better protect user data and the integrity of elections. He’ll reference the company’s work during the French and German votes, during which it took down tens of thousands of fake accounts, as well as recent changes to its policies.

Facebook’s influence over Congress

Lawmakers say they won’t cut Zuckerberg any slack, but it’s important to note that many of them have received contributions from the Silicon Valley giant. Two of the committees with the highest totals of Facebook donations over the past decade, USA Today reported based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, are the House Energy and Commerce committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which Zuckerberg will face this week. The Senate Judiciary committee, which will hold its hearing along with its commerce counterpart, is lower on the list.

Over the years, according to USA Today, Facebook has been contributing more to Democrats than Republicans. But of the 55 current members of the House Energy and Commerce committee, 46 received Facebook money over the past decade, and the average donation was roughly the same for each Republican and Democrat.

In this election cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the House committee is also the top recipient for Facebook donations, from both the Facebook Political Action Committee, and individuals employed by the company.

It makes sense that members of these committees attract Facebook contributions. The Senate Commerce committee oversees legislation related to communication, including the internet. The House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees electronic communications as well, including cybersecurity, privacy, and data security.

In addition to political donations, Facebook has spent $12 million on lobbying in 2017. Some of that lobbying  included a push against the Honest Ads Act, sources told Quartz, a legislation that would require Facebook to be more transparent about political advertising on the platform—a bill the company publicly says it supports.

The stakes are high

The stakes for Zuckerberg’s testimony are huge. He’ll have to be very careful what he admits, how he phrases it, and what he chooses to avoid answering. Watching him will be prosecutors and officials in several countries who have launched probes against Facebook. Unlike his lawyers, whom he has sent to Congress in the past, he’ll have to work hard to avoid stepping into murky legal waters. What he says during his questioning could also affect how lawmakers think about regulating his company and the entire sector, which could severely affect his company’s business (in his remarks, he says that planned investments in security will significantly impact the company’s profitability). Any stumble puts him at risk of a PR fiasco, which could influence Facebook’s stock price, which already took a big hit in recent weeks. It could also turn off users—his biggest audience—some of whom have already left the platform.

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