For all the drama surrounding his coming testimony, the public portions of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Capitol Hill visit this week are expected to be mostly one-sided, as congressional inquisitors chew up the scenery and compete to deliver the most damning rhetorical indictment of his company’s business practices.
Public shaming is a powerful tool. But there are also a handful of very specific questions that need to be asked and answered – under oath. Zuckerberg and his team have brushed off these legitimate concerns for too long. The next 48 hours will provide, if not clarity, then some measure of comeuppance.
Whether there is anything Congress can do – though quite clearly they need to do something – that will more than temporarily mitigate the asymmetrical online agitprop that’s seized the social network is another unanswered question. Even when crafted in good faith, regulation has its limits, especially on this platform, and for all their friendly recent noises, Facebook executives will not quietly cede to government oversight.
If it comes to that. There’s little to suggest lawmakers are keen to dig too deep below the surface. That’s equal part politics and a general sense, across party lines, of helplessness. Facebook could delete itself tomorrow and, best case, we’d only be chucked back to earlier forms of lazy political self-satisfaction. The FW:FW:FW:FW:FW: email chains of the early aughts are lying in wait. And if the internet imploded entirely, and the major newspapers folded and local news outlets disappeared (ugh…) too, the partisan pamphleteers would rise again in their wake.
Which brings us back to Facebook. What can regular users, civic-minded voters with earnest political values, do to keep from getting rolled by the online leviathan or the hucksters swimming around inside of it?
To start, a bit more reading – of any/everything – would help. That’s not a jab. The modern economy doesn’t allow much time for average citizens to investigate the most basic issues, let alone construct coherent political analyses. Nor is it an insistence that we all break from our bubbles and strain to understand “the other side.”
The imperative here is to better understand one’s own politics. People who know what they want – and have a grip on the debates around it – are less likely to be snookered by pleasing but dubious content meant to convince them of something that’s just plain wrong.
A broader understanding of our own interests makes us tougher marks for con artists and misinformation campaigns. Those bad actors are here to stay, no matter what Congress does or doesn’t do. There is no legislating away user-made memes (nor should there be), which are in most cases among the most democratic (small “d”) modern modes of political speech. For the more politically literate, the “fake” stuff is easier to identify.
On some level, Zuckerberg must know this. But as the chief executive of Facebook, his interests are elsewhere. If his performances during recent cross examinations – like the one conducted last month by CNN’s Laurie Segall – are any indication of what’s to come, the Facebook founder will offer a mix of contrition, obfuscation and the promise of future action.
Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks to a House committee, published late Monday morning, provide a bit of each. Most notable, as politics are concerned, is his implicit olive branch to Democrats, who will be in a contest to see who can extract the most sweat from his brow.
In a section titled “Russian Election Interference,” Zuckerberg describes the company’s post-election forensic work.
“What we found,” he says, “was that bad actors had used coordinated networks of fake accounts to interfere in the election: promoting or attacking specific candidates and causes, creating distrust in political institutions, or simply spreading confusion. Some of these bad actors also used our ads tools.”
Well, yes – we’ve known this much for a while now. Not because Facebook has been forthcoming, but thanks to the entire US intelligence community, a federal investigation, and smart, savvy reporters who, with each investigative coup, have extracted a new round of measured concession from the company.
That reporting will continue long after Zuckerberg returns west. Congress, though, will shift its interests and, in its current form, seems unlikely in any case to impose strict new regulations. Americans who want something better can’t afford to wait on business leaders or lawmakers.
They must bet on themselves – and one another.