When asked by a leading US legislator if he believed he was above the law, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response was to smirk.
It was perhaps good he felt he had something to be pleased about as the rest of the 6 hours he spent in front of the House Financial Services Committee certainly couldn’t be classed as fun for him.
Nominally Zuckerberg was there to be grilled about Facebook’s cryptocurrency project, Libra, and there was questioning around that. There was some support for his ambitions from Republican committee members, such as North Carolina’s Patrick McHenry who urged his colleagues not to “put innovation on trial”.
But there was a lot of hostility and suspicion on show as well, such as 5 minute diatribe from California’s Brad Sherman, who raged:
For the richest man in the world to come here and hide behind the poorest people in the world and say that's who you're really trying to help. You're trying to help those for whom the dollar is not a good currency: drug dealers, terrorists, tax evader
The US dollar is an excellent currency as a means of account as it serves 'all of the needs' except it's really bad for tax evaders, drug dealers, and terrorists, and that unmet need can be met by a new currency," he said.
Those who are introducing cryptocurrency have got to pause and wonder what effect they'll have on the power of the United States to impose sanctions. Right now, Turkey is stopping at 20 miles from Syria, not because of US troops, but because of US sanctions and the role of the US dollar. We stand to lose all of that because the cryptocurrency is for the crypto patriot.
You're going to be making powerful burglary tools, and letting your business partners commit the burglary….You will not be able to hide behind the idea that you didn't create the Libra organisation. That it's just your business partners who have wallets designed for drug dealers or terrorists.
You're going to help drug dealers, terrorists and tax evaders.
Phew! That’s tough talking. The only problem is that it essentially let Zuckerberg off the hook as Sherman failed to ask a single question in his allotted time, choosing instead to indulge in the grandstanding that characterised the Facebook CEO’s last appearance before a Congressional committee.
But with this being the first grilling since mid-2018, other legislators had a lot of time to make up for and the discourse quickly moved onto other controversies. Most notable - and the most successful in turning the screws on Zuckerberg - was New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who set out her agenda very succinctly:
I think you can appreciate using a person’s past behavior to determine their future behavior, In order for us to make decisions about Libra, I think we need to kind of dig into your past behavior and Facebook’s past behavior with respect to our democracy.
And with that she drilled down on Facebook’s recent declaration that it will not be fact-checking claims and postings from politicians. Ocasio-Cortez wanted clarity on this policy. She wasn’t about to get it. She asked Zuckerberg:
You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future, so I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year. Under your policy and using census data as well, could I pay to target predominantly black ZIP codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?”
For that one at least, Facebook's finest had an answer:
No, Congresswoman, you couldn’t..If anyone, including a politician is saying things that can cause, that is calling for violence or could risk imminent physical hard or voter or census suppression... we will take that content down.
But Ocasio-Cortez was far from finished:
Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you're not fact-checking political advertisements, I'm just trying to understand the bounds here.”
So it appeared was Zuckerberg:
I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think, probably.
Probably? Ocasio-Cortez was unimpressed:
So you won't take down lies, or you will take down lies? I think that's a pretty simple yes or no. I'm not talking about spin — I'm talking about actual disinformation.
Pass the buck
Zuckerberg resorted to the argument he pitched in his controversial speech to Georgetown University last week, that it’s up to citizens to exercise their own judgement when presented with information and disinformation:
This is a democracy. I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not have voted for are saying and judge their character for themselves.
There are independent fact checkers, he added, selected from the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), a fact checking organisation established by the journalism integrity group Poynter.
One such independent fact checker is the Daily Caller, noted Ocasio-Cortez, a publication which she said has links to white supremacists:
You would say that white supremacist-tied publications meet a rigorous standard for fact checking?
Zuckerberg pointed to the IFCN. As so-often on Facebook’s mea culpa mission, it’s a case of pointing to third parties and arguing that it’s nothing to do with the platform provider. But Ocasio-Cortez had the bit between her teeth, demanding to know if Zuckerberg saw “a potential problem” with “a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”.
His response might well have elicited a smirk or two from anyone listening to its triteness:
Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad.
A political grilling that had more teeth than usual, thanks in the main to Ocasio-Cortez, but as we’re now used to, one that relied on soundbites, faux apologies and resorting to ‘I don’t have the answer’ as get outs. The most egregious example came when Zuckerberg was asked about when he’d first discussed the Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who owns data analytics firm Palantir Technologies. His response:
I don’t know that off the top of my head.
Fair enough. After all, how could Zuck be expected to have known someone might want to ask about what Ocasio-Cortez called “the largest data scandal with respects to your company that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election”. Let's be fair!
The wider problem is that this sort of evasive response and generic hand-waving over bigger issues is looking like company policy now. And it’s not restricted to Zuckerberg.
Journalist Katie Couric gave Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg a tough time over the political fact-checking issue at the Vanity Fair New Establishment summit in California:
Simply put, while major news organizations strengthen fact-checking and accountability, Facebook is saying if you are a politician who wishes to peddle in lies, distortion, and not-so-subtle racial appeals, welcome to our platform. We will not fact-check. You are automatically newsworthy. You are automatically exempt from scrutiny.
For her part, Sandberg reached for the canned responses, albeit delivered with more assurance than the frequently tongue-tied Zuckerberg:
It’s a hard conversation and emotions are running high on this,it is the price of free speech. That means there is going to be all the beauty and all the ugliness of humanity...We are going to fight to keep the bad off but keep the good going.
In the meantime, this obfuscation takes us no further. As Patrick McHenry, the ranking Republican on the Financial Services Committee, commented of the Zuckerberg grilling:
We don’t have a deeper understanding of how Libra would work.
A cynic might suspect that’s the plan…and that’s nothing to smirk about.