Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will face down congressional lawmakers twice this week – in back-to-back sessions Tuesday and Wednesday – as he seeks to stop the bleeding from a series of recent negative news stories detailing Facebook’s seemingly lax security standards with its users’ data. (Zuckerberg was in Washington Monday, meeting with lawmakers ahead of his formal testimony.)
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start simple: What does Zuckerberg – and Facebook more generally – want to get out of this week?
Segall: Facebook needs to (and is trying to) paint a picture of a company that takes its role in society very seriously. The company needs to convince lawmakers and users that it has control of the platform and is taking real steps to protect users.
The theme will be transparency. You’ll hear the admission that the company didn’t take a broad enough view. Zuckerberg will do his best to appear authentic and humbled by the position his company is in.
Cillizza: Zuckerberg told you he needs to do more interviews, be more open. Is this part of that?
Segall: Yep. And let’s be honest, it’s also a result of public pressure for Zuckerberg to show up given he is the name and face of the company.
You could argue that Zuckerberg has been in his own filter bubble at the company. He rarely appears on camera, and much of what you hear from him comes from blog posts and Facebook Lives. He rules over his 2 billion constituents from afar. The conversation has been limited and one-sided.
Given the company’s power and position in society, there’s an admission that must change. The last weeks have been a test run for him. After sitting down with me, he spoke to several other journalists and hosted a call where he took questions from reporters for an hour. It’s all warm-up for the main event. And for a CEO who is much more comfortable behind the scenes, testifying in a politically charged and public setting will be flexing a new muscle.
Cillizza: Do we expect Zuckerberg to make any further admissions or make any news?
Segall: It could certainly happen given the line of questioning, but Facebook has been trying to get ahead of the testimony in the last weeks with a number of changes.
The company announced it would restrict access for third party developers. It announced more transparency around data collection and better controls to help people understand what information they’re sharing. On Friday, the company announced more transparency around political and issue ads on the platform.
The onslaught of Facebook news is calculated. Ahead of the testimony, Zuckerberg needs to show Facebook is taking issues like data privacy and election meddling seriously. That being said, lawmakers have free reign to ask the CEO any type of question, and many have been waiting on this moment. The most interesting moments will come when Zuckerberg is forced to deviate from the company line.
Cillizza: What’s the worst-case scenario for Zuckerberg? A confrontation with a lawmaker?
Segall: The worst that could happen is Zuckerberg succumbs to situational pressure. Public speaking is not his strength. This type of setting and these types of questions will be tough for him.
Zuckerberg has to do his best to paint the picture of a CEO who is accountable and transparent, not arrogant and disconnected. The worst-case scenario for Zuckerberg and Facebook is if the CEO can’t answer pointed questions in a way that feels authentic and further drives the narrative that the company is disconnected and focused on its business bottom line at the cost of the user.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Zuckerberg’s greatest strength in these hearings is ________.” Now, explain.
Segall: “Zuckerberg’s greatest strength in these hearings is there is no one that represents and embodies the company like him.”
Zuckerberg is Facebook. Facebook is Zuckerberg. He is passionate and hands on behind the scenes. People inside the company respect him. He lives and breathes Facebook and there is no better person to represent the company in a watershed moment where everyone from lawmakers to users are questioning the value of what’s become one of the most powerful companies in the world