Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Tuesday and Wednesday. Zuckerberg has long been accused of avoiding Congress, instead delegating other Facebook executives to appear in his stead. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a breach of privacy trust, as Facebook has labeled it, the CEO has led the company’s apology tour, including numerous interviews and even a press Q&A, both of which he typically eschews. He will testify before the House to discuss again the scope of what happened, which, as Facebook’s investigation continues, seems to become broader and more far-reaching each day.
His appearance in Washington will be significant not only to those watching the Cambridge Analytica drama unfold, but to the history of Facebook. Until recently, Zuckerberg and his Facebook cohort have been fairly adept at lobbying federal politicians, but criticism of Facebook’s privacy practices and disillusionment with the social network’s grander purpose are at an all-time high. This is a crucial moment for the platform to attempt to regain trust from the highest powers of government. Average users seem unbothered by the data-scraping incident, but Zuckerberg is likely aware that government regulation and oversight, not user numbers, are what stand to limit the future he has imagined for Facebook.
This moment has been years in the making. Zuckerberg and Facebook’s reckless ambition hurled the CEO and his company into this spotlight. In case you’re fuzzy on the details, we collected the necessary reading that chronicles Zuckerberg’s path to D.C.
If you want the broad strokes of what Zuckerberg will likely say:
Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks for Wednesday’s session were published Monday morning. The statement offers a general summary of the topics the CEO is prepared to address. In short, he says that Facebook’s optimism about the connections the platform enables overshadowed the company’s need to adequately prepare for and fight bad actors. There is much rehashing of what we already know about the Cambridge Analytica incident and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together. Advertisers and developers will never take priority over that as long as I’m running Facebook,” his statement concludes.
For a history of Zuckerberg’s inadequate apologies:
For Wired, Zeynep Tufekci wrote about Zuckerberg’s various apology tours. The story goes all the way back to 2003, when Facebook wasn’t even Facebook. It was Facemash, and the site scraped Harvard students’ photos and asked users to rate their hotness. At the time, Zuckerberg said, “I definitely see how my intentions could be seen in the wrong light,” a classic nonapology that put the onus on others for misinterpreting what he was building.
This kind of apology implies that Zuckerberg didn’t screw up, but that the way you feel is wrong. Since Zuckerberg’s Harvard days, Facebook’s apologies have taken more responsibility, but this origin story was predictive. Zuckerberg reminded listeners during his Q&A last week that information was not hacked or stolen; users freely gave it up, agreeing to app permissions and Facebook’s Terms of Service.
What happened last time Facebook representatives spoke to Congress:
In November, Facebook, Twitter, and Google went before the Senate to answers questions about interference in the election as well as the companies’ struggles with information manipulation. (Zuckerberg did not appear; legal representatives for the company did.) While some of the questioning was hard-hitting—then-senator Al Franken pointedly asked Facebook how it failed to “connect those two dots” between Russian ads and political interference—Facebook’s defense essentially amounted to “we didn’t pay enough attention, and we should have.” This look back is a helpful reminder of how the company’s dalliance with the government went last time—and hopefully not a precursor for how it will unfold this time around. Plus, here’s more background on how, following the testimony from November, Facebook began adapting based on threats of regulation.
How Zuckerberg prepared:
The New York Times has a story on the famously awkward CEO’s “crash course in charm.” The company has reportedly hired experts to coach him in humility and approachability. Zuckerberg is also meeting with legal experts and lawmakers, as well as going through mock-trial rounds. Zuckerberg has been a staunch, and occasionally arrogant, defender of Facebook. This time he’ll have to humble himself.
Speaking of Zuckerberg interviews … here’s a blast from the past:
In 2004, Zuckerberg gave his first interview. It’s a useful reminder of the fairly straightforward mission Facebook began with. He doesn’t indicate that he had any inkling of what the platform become. Watching the interview now, the company’s precarious position seems inevitable -- a social network for college kids to swap photos and stories was never meant to intersect with the democratic process nor become one of the biggest platforms for online advertising.
On the increased politicizing of Zuckerberg:
Last year, the public noticed the CEO’s non-campaigning. What looked an awful lot like a pre-presidential campaign tour was repeatedly dismissed by Facebook. (But why else does anyone visit a family farm in Iowa and employ a professional photographer to document it? ) At BuzzFeed, Nitasha Tiku wrote about Zuckerberg’s evolution from an awkward interviewee to a polished presenter, one who benefited from speechwriters and ample coaching. But this time, it wasn’t simply to give a better keynote at Facebook F8—it was to “connect” with constituents of the United States. Looking back on this story, it feels more and more likely the CEO could have very well been prepping for a political career, which seems incredibly unlikely now.
If you want a glimpse inside Zuckerberg’s mind:
Zuckerberg was recently interviewed by The Atlantic and also appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast, participating in a frank discussion of what happened with Cambridge Analytica. It’s more candid than any written remarks and is more revealing than the fairly clipped Q&A he held with journalists over the phone last week. He waxes philosophical about what he thinks Facebook is and where it’s going, and discusses how new security systems will work. Legislators will likely ask specific questions about some of the processes mentioned in this interview.
Then, revisit his 2017 manifesto:
Or at least skim it (it’s 6,000-plus words). The text is an optimistic take on Facebook’s power to create community and connect people -- and there’s nothing wrong with optimism, unless it’s full of gaping blind spots. The manifesto reads like a precursor to the issues that have befallen Facebook. The company’s drive to expand sidelined its interest to protect its users from everything from data-scraping to propaganda. It stresses that Facebook is about positive community building, but it ignores the ways in which it has negatively affected people—and governments. The concession that Facebook has deeply erred is coming now, though. Zuckerberg couldn’t have known how prescient it was at the time, but he closed his statement with the following:
I am reminded of President Lincoln’s remarks during the American Civil War: “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew.