The tragedy and lost opportunity of Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress

The tragedy and lost opportunity of Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress

Congress didn’t do nearly enough to hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable

Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington to testify before Congress over two days of hearings. Expectations were low -- to the point of infantilization. Unsurprisingly, Zuckerberg was able to clear the extremely low bar America sets for white men in business. He showed up in a suit and tie, didn’t say anything too embarrassing, and, for the most part, the members of Congress questioning him made more news than his testimony did. Facebook’s public relations team probably considers the hearings a win. The stock market certainly did.

Facebook’s users, however, lost bigly. Congress failed to hold Zuckerberg accountable. The Senate hearing, held jointly by the judiciary and commerce committees, devolved into Zuckerberg explaining how the Internet worked to the poorly informed senators. The House commerce committee members were more up to speed, but Republican members -- following Ted Cruz’s lead from the day before -- spent most of their time and energy grilling Zuckerberg about nonexistent censorship of right-wing content. If Facebook’s leaders are ill-prepared to handle the challenges they’re facing, Congress appears even less up to the challenge.

Tech press had a field day on Twitter in feigning outrage at Congress for its lack of tech savvy, but the Congress’ lack of interest in holding Facebook accountable is far more problematic. As David Dayen noted in the Intercept:

This willingness, against interest and impulse, to do the job of a policymaker was sorely absent throughout Tuesday’s testimony, which involved both the judiciary and commerce committees, as well as nearly half the members of the Senate. Far too many senators framed the problems with Facebook — almost unilaterally agreed, on both sides of the aisle, to be pernicious and requiring some action — as something for Zuckerberg to fix, and then tell Congress about later.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was the rare exception. He was one of few members of Congress comfortable with calling Facebook a monopoly.

Facebook’s issues with civil rights was barely covered, with a few notable exceptions. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Zuckerberg if Facebook would ever assist the government in vetting immigrants (it would not in most cases), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Zuckerberg to protect Black Lives Matter activists from improper surveillance (he agreed). Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and G.J. Butterfield (D-NC) asked similar questions during the House hearing, and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) asked about Facebook as a recruitment tool for ISIS. But not one question was asked about Facebook’s role as a recruitment tool for white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

While the House hearing featured better questions, the majority of Republican members nevertheless managed to turn it into a circus. They repeatedly asked Zuckerberg about the supposed censorship of pro-Trump social media stars Diamond and Silk (which has since been debunked) and suggested that the biggest issue Facebook faces is the censorship of right-wing content. The concern trolling over Diamond and Silk came between questions exposing deep societal problems including opioid sales on the social media platform that are literally responsible for overdose deaths and Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

The Diamond and Silk obsession derives from another one of Facebook’s societal problems: the prominence of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and misinformation on the platform. Multiple members who asked Zuckerberg about Diamond and Silk said they’d heard directly from their constituents about the matter, which they almost certainly did. Pro-Trump media lost their collective minds when the news broke. The facts are that the Diamond and Silk supposed censorship didn't actually happen and that data does not back up the claim of right-wing media being censored on Facebook. If anything, the platform is a cesspool of far-right activity.

Not one member of Congress asked Zuckerberg about Facebook’s role in the spread of conspiracy theories and propaganda. Republicans were wasting valuable time demanding answers over a nonexistent conspiracy theory, and no one at all felt compelled to ask Zuckerberg how the hell we got to here. It is extremely telling that while this was going on, Diamond and Silk made an appearance on Alex Jones’ Infowars broadcast, another conspiracy theory site that owes its popularity in part to Facebook.

If social media filter bubbles have split Americans into different realities, it would seem that Congress is a victim to the same problem. Research shows that the right-wing’s filter bubble influences the left’s in a way that isn’t reciprocated. Right-wing content isn’t actually being censored on Facebook. The newly minted Diamond and Silk Caucus (or the Alex Jones Caucus) in Congress was demanding that even more right-wing content show up in our feeds, sending the right-wing base even deeper into their bubble. It’s the same schtick that the same people have pulled for years with the political media.

While many in Congress have complained about far-right conspiracy theories becoming a part of mainstream American society, it’s a shame that they didn’t hold accountable the one man who more than anyone created this reality.

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