Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington has become the largest media spectacle in recent tech history. Since stories about Facebook’s relationship with the political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica first broke nearly a month ago, thousands of articles have been penned, apologies have been offered, and boycotts have been waged. It’s the battle-tested Facebook controversy cycle on steroids, with Zuckerberg’s remorse manifesting in hours of congressional testimony rather than the typical contrite Facebook post.
While the verbal sparring between Zuckerberg and lawmakers has mostly consisted of Internet for Dummies excerpts, vague promises by the Facebook CEO to do better, and a surprising fascination with the pro-Trump vloggers Diamond and Silk, the most compelling moments of the hearings have been visual. Inside and outside the Capitol building, photographers captured images that convey just how much Facebook has amplified (and profited from) certain fundamental human traits—our vanity, our compulsion to document everything, our need to be liked. Here we present a visual tour of Zuckerberg’s world these past two days, full of apt symbols for the digital ecosystem he created for the rest of us. —Victor Luckerson
The Swarm of Photographers
Kate Knibbs: On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg drew a line between Facebook’s methods of information-collecting and government surveillance. “People often ask what the difference is between surveillance and what we do. I think the difference is extremely clear: it’s that on Facebook you have control over your information,” Zuckerberg said, in response to a question from Democratic Representative Bobby Rush. “The content that you share, you put there. You can take it down anytime. The information we choose to collect, you can choose to have us not collect. You can delete any of it and, of course, you can leave Facebook if you want. I know of no surveillance organization that gives people the option to delete the data they have or even know they are collecting.”
Rush did not have time to grill Zuckerberg on the truth of his claims, which do not hold up to even the most surface-level inspection. For starters, Zuckerberg was squeezed to defend himself against charges of surveillance only because Facebook had already admitted to allowing political entities to use personal information without people’s permission. Most people had not chosen to share this data, they could not be sure to get it back, and they were not informed for years about the collection. What’s more, Zuckerberg admitted in the same hearing that Facebook collects information even on people who have chosen to avoid its reach. The line Zuckerberg tried to draw looks wobbly.
The day before Rush’s question, Zuckerberg made his first appearance in the hot seat. A gaggle of photographers swarmed him as he sat alone, hands folded and eyes rheumy, prepared for scrutiny. It is important to note that Zuckerberg came to face this crowd voluntarily. He had not been subpoenaed and he was not under oath. Technically, he could leave any time he wanted. Yet, as the swarm of journalists made clear, he cannot avoid our gaze.
Alyssa Bereznak: Zuckerberg’s painstakingly boring five-hour testimony Tuesday included one brief, welcomed break. But in his haste to leave the room—presumably to empty his bladder, dunk his head in a sink of cold water, and re-up on beta blockers—Zuckerberg left his notes splayed out on the table, lying in plain sight in a room full of journalists.
Soon enough, a photo surfaced online, complete with a mysterious red-manicured hand holding them up for a better shot. (Thank you, anonymous hand.) The journalistic practice of photographing high-powered figures’ notes is a time-honored tradition. An early instance of this was in 1975, when a new Canon F-1 with a tricked out lens zoomed into Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s notes at the Helsinki Accords. (The document was headed with the words “TOP SECRET SENSITIVE EXCLUSIVELY EYES ONLY.”)
In the case of Zuckerberg’s notes, there was an additional layer of irony. The Facebook CEO was before Congress to discuss concerns over data privacy on his social network. And because of one forgetful moment, his cheat sheet for the day was captured and disseminated to whoever cared to see it. (Highlights include bland, dodgey phrases to use when asked about diversity or new European privacy regulations.) One of the most common complaints of users in the history of Facebook has been exactly that: Unless people are ultravigilant about their Facebook settings at all moments of their digital experience, chances are they’re going to share something that they don’t want their friends and family (let alone random advertisers) to see. The Zuckerberg notes reveal was a symbolic example of the kinds of invasion of privacy his users experience on a day-to-day basis.
Lindsey Graham Mocks Facebook’s Terms of Service
Luckerson: During his questioning, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina held up a fat stack of papers that we’re all technically supposed to be familiar with: the Facebook Terms of Service. After reading aloud an excerpt of legalese from the document, he said, “I’m a lawyer and I have no idea what that means. … Do you think the average consumer understands what they’re signing up for?”
Lawmakers repeatedly lambasted Facebook’s complicated document, noting that it ran thousands of words long and granted the social network broad latitude over user data. Facebook’s claim that users “own” their personal information came under continued scrutiny, particularly because it’s Facebook, not users, that collects all the profits from that information. “I don’t think the average person likely reads that whole document,” Zuckerberg acknowledged. “But I think there are different ways we can communicate that and have a responsibility to do so.”
The disconnect here is that Zuckerberg believes that users have granted his company the right to track them to the ends of the internet, but lawmakers believe that the average person deserves a practical explanation of how their data will be leveraged, not just a technical one. Senator John Kennedy, another blunt Southern Republican, summed up the general sentiment well: “Your user agreement sucks.”
Mark Zuckerberg’s Booster Seat
Molly McHugh: Many moments from Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony will stick with me: Ted Cruz’s question about Chick-Fil-A appreciation day; Zuck totally owning Republican Senator Orrin Hatch with the “Senator, we run ads” response. But—pun totally intended—the moment seared into my memory most deeply will be the first time I saw the Facebook CEO’s booster seat.
It has to be uncomfortable to sit in any chair for five-odd hours while legislators grill you over internet questions with seemingly obvious answers. Adding some cushion makes total sense! On the other hand, the cushion was 4 inches thick (a visual approximation). This is a power move so that Zuck, who’s 5-foot-7, could look more imposing.
I get it. When I was in college, my housemates bought a table that my arms couldn’t comfortably reach. I sat on a phone book and pillow all year to remedy that situation. A quick Google image search leads me to believe that this is an upgrade from my phonebook-pillow situation. I think this is a Piper J3 Cub modeled cushion—a Piper J3 Cub is a small airplane, so these seats are for fancy boys. If I’m correct (and there’s no way to know that I am, but it’s fun to dream!), that’s a $200-plus butt accessory.
The Cardboard Cutouts
Knibbs: In advance of Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances before Congress, protesters displayed 100 life-size cardboard cutouts of the executive on Capitol Hill, staring fish-eyed toward the public. The project, “Four Solutions to Fix Facebook,” was initiated by the global advocacy group Avaaz, with the aim to draw attention to the continued presence of accounts spreading false information on the platform. Zuckerberg has already publicly pledged to fix Facebook; in January, he promised to spend 2018 on a corrective spree. But Avaaz, like Congress (and many Americans), remains unsatisfied with his behavior thus far. In the cutout arrangement, the flock of Zuckerbergs (Zuckerbii?) wear identical Facebook-blue shirts, emblazoned with a directive: Fix Facebook.
Avaaz has proposed several changes it wants Zuckerberg to make to his company, and it has taken out advertisements outlining their proposals on Politico and The Washington Post. The protest art is connected to concrete demands for the CEO. Yet it works more effectively in an unintended way: By gesturing toward the arrogance of Zuckerberg’s vow itself and the fact this one profoundly milquetoast man has maneuvered himself into such a position of consequence in the first place. The cutouts look like a squadron, but a particularly flimsy one, dwarfed by the government building they stand in front of. Even 100 Zuckerbergs looked like they could blow away in wind like feathers. The futility of this idea—that Zuckerberg alone could steer an entity that has grown into a controlling factor in global culture—is clear on the Capitol lawn. Even 100 versions of the same man looked weak.
The Woman Sitting Behind Zuck
Bereznak: Staring at the same expressionless human incarnate of a PowerPoint presentation for five hours straight, your eye starts to wander. And during the first day of testimony, mine landed on a woman sitting behind Zuckerberg who appears to be a member of his communications team. Anytime Zuckerberg was served a tough question, her eyebrows shifted to listen for a canned response—one that she and her fellow teammates had likely written, A/B tested, and fed to their dear boss in one of his “crash courses in charm.” Once Zuckerberg uttered the right phrase—something like “people deserve good privacy tools and rules wherever they live”—her eyes would shift back to her phone, and she would begin furiously texting again. Of course anyone who runs a company as large as Facebook is going to surround themselves with handlers and press people. But Zuckerberg has always been a particularly awkward public speaker. That he was able to hold his own is a testament to his growth as a CEO, but also to the vast amount of resources he’s tapped into to make himself more presentable and—most important—more likable.
The Facebook Protesters Who Still Use Facebook
Luckerson: Shortly before Zuckerberg’s hearing Tuesday, a trio of protesters in neon-colored glasses stood in the middle of the Senate chamber. They were from Code Pink, a women-initiated social justice movement working to end U.S.-funded wars. Their signs voiced their displeasure with Facebook’s data-collecting practices—well, two of them did, anyway. Between the messages blaring “PROTECT OUR PRIVACY” and “STOP CORPORATE SPYING,” the protesters still got in time for a social media plug: “LIKE US ON FACEBOOK.” The juxtaposition shows just how deeply Facebook has woven its way into our communication habits, even as people are repelled by the tactics the company used to make itself so essential. If you want to voice your opinion to the world, there really is no quitting Facebook.