Zuckerberg's DC trip: What the spectacle looked like up close

The Facebook CEO's trip to Washington to testify before Congress was quite the scene -- both in the hearing room and outside it.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Richard Nieva
Ian Sherr
5 min read
100 life-size cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the Capitol Hill lawn.

An activist group placed 100 life-size cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the Capitol Hill lawn.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

On the third floor of the US Capitol building, in room S316, stands an artifact that's disappeared from most people's lives: a phone booth.

The phones -- there's a bank of five, in fact -- aren't part of a museum. The 20th century tools are still used by some reporters in the Senate Press Gallery.

They're also one of the starkest reminders that Washington is out of pace with the Digital Age.

The other reminder is the senators themselves, who during a more than five-hour hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday showed themselves to be woefully ignorant about the technology they use, and the industry that created it.


Phone booths at the Senate press gallery.

Ian Sherr/CNET

"If [a version of Facebook will always be free], how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" Sen. Orrin Hatch, an 84-year-old Republican from Utah, asked early on in the hearing.

Zuckerberg paused a moment before saying, "Senator, we run ads." The response shot around the web and social spheres, and even inspired a T-shirt.

It was just one moment during the two-day marathon of Zuckerberg, Facebook's 33-year-old multibillionaire CEO, testifying before Congress over data and privacy. At their core, the hearings were a chance for Zuckerberg to apologize, repeatedly, for a data leak three years ago created by an app developer reportedly selling the information of as many as 87 million Facebook users to a UK-based political consulting and data mining company called Cambridge Analytica.

It all added up to a spectacle in the nation's capital, filled with protesters, ridiculously long lines and even an army of life-size cardboard cutouts of Zuckerberg on the Capitol lawn.

Here are some of the sights and sounds that caught our attention while attending the hearings.

Get your Zucks in a row

While Zuckerberg was getting ready Tuesday to testify at the Hart Senate building, activists had placed 100 Zuckerberg cutouts on the lawn of the Capitol just one block away. The cardboard Zucks wore emotionless expressions and T-shirts that read, "Fix Fakebook."

Wandering through the cluster of cutouts felt like walking through a strange version of the Urban Light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- except the landscape was the world's fifth richest man instead of street lights. It was as if the Facebook founder had been copied and pasted a hundred times over.

The army of cutouts was set up by the activist group Avaaz, which said it wants Facebook to ban all bots from the world's largest social network and to do a better job dealing with fake news. That would include alerting users any time they've seen disinformation and reviewing the "scale and scope of fake news."

Tourists and members of the media (including this reporter) milled around taking pictures.

Spider-Man, bunnies and Russian trolls

Not all Facebook protesters were made of cardboard. A few yards from the cutouts on the Capitol lawn, a group of about 15 people chanted "Zuckerberg, you're absurd!" and "The internet is getting dark, and we owe it all to Mark!"

The protesters also held up signs saying "#PrivacyMatters." Some wore Spider-Man and bunny costumes.

Even more characters attended Tuesday's Senate hearing. Amanda Werner from Long Beach, California, came dressed as a Russian troll -- with a fluorescent blue-and-green wig and a Russian flag wrapped like a scarf. If you looked closely, you might've recognized the 28-year-old Werner from an earlier photobomb of former Equifax CEO Richard Smith while dressed as the Monopoly Man during his Senate testimony in October.

Werner, a self-described creative activist, said Zuckerberg's testimony was "weak."

"They knew about this for 27 months and I just found out yesterday that my data was breached," Werner said. "My data was breached with Equifax, too, so I was personally affected by both of these."

Another group, called Code Pink, came to the Senate hearing wearing giant sunglasses that said "Stop Spying" and holding a sign that read "Like us on Facebook." They were kicked out but showed up again for Zuckerberg's House hearing on Wednesday. They waited outside during the nearly five-hour testimony.

The irony of it all? Many of the groups organized their protests on Facebook.


They say congressional hearings with big CEOs are prime political theater, and Zuckerberg's visit was no exception.

During the Senate hearing, the bright spotlights above Zuckerberg were blinding. The room was crowded, and muggy with body heat. After Zuckerberg sat down, photographers took pictures for nearly a full minute before the proceedings could continue.

And Zuckerberg's team wanted to make sure it got something just right for the cameras. Zuckerberg, who's 5'7", sat on a 4-inch cushion, presumably to make his presence look more commanding in photos. The internet immediately became obsessed with the cushion.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At Joint Senate Commerce/Judiciary Hearing

The internet became obsessed with Zuckerberg's 4-inch chair cushion.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The next day, everyone wanted to see if the cushion would make an encore appearance at Zuckerberg's hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

One colleague's ping on Slack: "Could you check if Zuckerberg's seat on the House floor also has a booster cushion like yesterday?"

It wasn't there. Maybe Team Zuck didn't want it to cause the same commotion as it had the day before.

Staying in 

Capitol Hill is no stranger to drama. But even for this place, the waves of attention brought by Zuckerberg's appearances were on another level.

Throughout the week, reporters and spectators mumbled about whether Zuckerberg or the latest scandal for President Donald Trump would dominate more headlines. Press crammed into hearing rooms; the lines for the public to join snaked around corners; and the commotion in the usually calm and stately halls of the Senate and House office buildings was intense.

It all was too much for some staffers, who took to asking confused and lost strangers in the building, "Zuckerberg?" before sending them in the right direction.

"I'm staying in the office today," one staffer joked on an elevator. At least until the calm returns.

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