Zuckerberg takes Facebook data apology tour to Washington
The creator of the world’s largest social network is testifying at two congressional hearings this week. The crux: Can we trust Facebook?
Ian SherrFormer 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. 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.
And in the 14 years since Facebook was founded, he's largely succeeded. More than 2 billion people use his service each month, making it the biggest social media network on the planet. It's the largest photo site on the web. It's now home to powerful social movements, an outlet for political dissidents and, yes, the place where you share baby photos and what you had for lunch. Most of us know more people who use Facebook than those who don't.
"For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings," a contrite Zuckerberg said in a rare media call last week. "But it's clear now that we didn't do enough. We didn't focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech. ... We didn't take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake. But it's clear now that we didn't do enough."
And that's not just because lawmakers have everything to gain by spending two days grandstanding at the expense of the
boy wonder. At stake could be the way Washington treats, as in regulates, the entire industry.
"Advertisers are queasy, influential users are critical, there's been a global avalanche of bad press, and now that the company has to open its eyes after years of not doing much, he's finding they're truly in a mess," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the
advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy. "He has to do a Herculean effort to apologize and reassure people he's making meaningful changes."
Zuckerberg will no doubt remind lawmakers that Facebook inspired world-changing social movements, connected billions of people with friends and family around the globe, and evolved into a town square for the digital age. But he'll also acknowledge, as he's said over and again in the past two weeks, that social media has become a shockingly effective tool for spreading propaganda and undermining public trust. All the while, he and his team didn't anticipate the threats to our private information and the theft of our user data.
"With all of the data exchanged over Facebook and other platforms, users deserve to know how their information is shared and secured," Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the US Senate's Committee on the Judiciary chairman, said in a statement.
All those efforts don't seem to have done much to bolster the confidence of Facebook users in the US. In a poll by CBS News (a corporate sibling of CNET), respondents largely said that the company's response to the scandal has been unacceptable and that they also seriously doubt Facebook can protect them in future.
Zuckerberg's made clear he knows what he's got to discuss with Congress. He summed it up with reporters last week: "Two of the most basic questions that I think people are asking about Facebook are: first, can we get our systems under control and can we keep people safe, and second, can we make sure that our systems aren't used to undermine democracy?"
European countries are already planning to implement the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which promises users that companies will use stricter privacy standards in addition to giving them more access and control over their personal data. Zuckerberg said he plans to follow the GDPR when it goes into effect next month.
Lion's den or eating out of his hands?
Zuckerberg's turn on Capitol Hill marks a dramatic fall from popularity. Just last year, he embarked on nationwide tour, promising to visit every state in the US to learn more about how people "are living, working and thinking about the future."
Zuckerberg told CNN in an interview last month he prefers not to do media interviews. If that's how he approaches his testimony, it's going to go badly, said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Since people still see Zuckerberg as the 22-year-old CEO-in-a-hoodie, Facebook's chief needs to take the opportunity to make a statement about what his company stands for and build up his credibility.
"He has to shoot for something more serious," Argenti said. "He needs to show he's a grownup and can go toe to toe against the big boys."
Not everyone's convinced he'll succeed.
The SNL skit on Saturday made a nod toward Zuckerberg's perception problem. "Sure, maybe Facebook sold out our democracy to Russian troll farms. My bad?" the parody-Zuckerberg said with a snarky shrug. "Unlike my facial expression, Facebook is going to change."
Part of Zuckerberg's problem is that his discomfort with public speaking makes what he's saying seem inauthentic, said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
"The only time during the CNN interview that he got emotional was when he talked about his daughters; that's the first time he was at a loss for words," Milanesi added. "I didn't see any of that passion for Facebook -- his platform, his first baby."
Originally published April 9 at 5:00 a.m. PT. Updated April 10 at 6:33 a.m. PT: Added information about a poll of Americans on Facebook's handing of user data.