Commentary: Note to Mark Zuckerberg: You can’t do damage control without giving straight answers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been on yet another damage control tour in recent days, in advance of testimony before Congress on Wednesday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With every damage control tour he goes on, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does more damage. And there have been a lot of tours.

In an interview Monday with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, the 35-year-old billionaire may as well have arrived with a defibrillator and paddles for his latest round of reputation resuscitation. Clear! Zuckerberg managed to lose another round in the battle to keep alive the notion that Facebook is a force for good.

For the record:

3:25 p.m. Oct. 22, 2019An earlier version of this article referred to Steve Bannon as a former chief of staff for President Trump. Bannon was a strategist.

The interview, which followed a week of the CEO trying to get ahead of a debate that started three years ago, offered nothing new in the way of information about, or insight into, his empire’s plans to curb election meddling, or for that matter the manipulation of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp by propagandists of all stripes.

You’d think by now that Zuckerberg would have learned how to feign concern when asked about Facebook’s accountability in undermining democratic elections, giving voice to hate groups and disseminating an astonishing amount of fake news. And that’s before one considers the plummeting vitamin D levels of a world populace that can’t stop scrolling, posting, repeating. At least the heart emoji is getting a workout.

When Holt asked Zuckerberg if he felt Facebook bore some responsibility for the election of Donald Trump, out spilled a word salad of meaningless platitudes.

“I certainly feel responsible for how our platform is used and that’s going to be studied by academics and historians for a long time to come,” said Zuckerberg with a self-serious face that only a “Saturday Night Live” writer could love.

“What the overall effect is — and there are a lot of effects — one of the bad ones is nation-states trying to interfere in our democracy. … But there are a lot of positive things going on too. People having a voice to raise opinions and perspectives that they couldn’t before. ... In terms of the overall effects this has on society or any one election, I know this is going to be studied for a long period of time to fully understand.”


And even longer to decipher what the hell he was trying to say, in yet another fumbled attempt to convey his (and his company’s) goodwill toward the human race. Communicating with other humans is best left to Facebook’s users.

The interview was part of a publicity tour meant to be part of a larger announcement highlighting what Facebook was doing to avoid a repeat of 2016. Zuckerberg said that Russia has already tried to interfere in the 2020 election, posing as Americans from different ends of the political spectrum who are united in their opposition to Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But Zuckerberg also needed to grease the rails ahead of his own testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, and perhaps to soften criticisms of his relationship with presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, whom he’s been quietly advising on campaign hires. The hearing will likely focus on Facebook’s 2020 plans to launch a new digital currency called Libra.

In an otherwise uneventful interview, Holt asked for the key headlines of the announcement. Zuckerberg said he wanted to bring attention to interference campaigns linked to Russian and Iran that Facebook interrupted, and highlight the additional measures they’ve put in place around transparency.

But don’t expect transparency, or even detail, about what those measures are. Zuckerberg would only admit that Facebook still needs to take its “systems from being reactive to proactive,” which felt like déjà vu from past “We’re Sort of Sorry” tours.

Wednesday’s hearing in Washington may focus on Facebook’s next step in total world domination, but ironically it’s Zuckerberg who employs the sort of double-speak perfected by politicians.

Though he still looks like a boy-man more interested in digital nerd-ery than on-brand messaging, he’s able to speak out both sides of his mouth with the ease of a seasoned senator. It’s an outdated style that many politicians — from presidential candidates on the campaign trail to those in the White House and on Capitol Hill — have left behind, whether in the form of Trump’s stump-speech insult comedy or Beto O’Rourke’s unvarnished language about gun violence.

Zuck’s current round of brand protection included an address at Georgetown University that kicked off a firestorm of criticism, an awkward sit-down with Fox News’ Dana Perino and closed-door meetings with senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle.

With each public showing, Zuckerberg stepped in the proverbial pile (Fact: Cute dogs are at the core of Instagram’s success), skimming over questions about Facebook’s accountability in policing what appears on its platform and half-answering queries about what it’s doing to protect its 2.4 billion global users against election meddling.


In his interview with Holt, Zuckerberg explains that the company is already seeing foreign countries “increasingly, with more sophisticated tactics,” trying to interfere in our elections. The company has already caught and deleted 50 such operations by foreign entities. Now it just has to deal with countless others. .

To be fair, the debate over free speech and monitoring harmful content is not an easy one. Who is Facebook to judge what’s right and wrong, and what’s the line between free expression and harmful disruption, if any?

But Zuckerberg’s mealy-mouthed non-answers to complex, critical questions continue to underscore the notion that the man and his company are evading responsibility while embracing profits. This notion is one that Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has highlighted with recent denunciations of Facebook’s political ad policies. (Meanwhile, polls earlier this year showed Facebook‘s favorability ratings on a sharp decline, and Zuckerberg’s approval among his own employees at an ebb.)

Take the Cambridge Analytica data breach of 2016, which Zuckerberg insists was not a data breach. Funded by right-wing organizations, including former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, the overseas operation dredged up background information culled from Facebook to target voters. Though Zuckerberg’s company has argued that it’s common for researchers to access user data for academic purposes, that intelligence was employed to sway an election and disseminate false propaganda against Trump’s competitors.

The one thing Zuckerberg appeared passionate about in the Holt interview was the misinformation about himself — how he’d been mischaracterized by the media and even in a film about his rise, 2010’s “The Social Network.”

“I get that a lot of people are angry at us,” said Zuckerberg to Holt. “Growing up for me is just realizing that it’s more important to be understood than it is to be liked. I believe that very strongly. I believe people can make up their minds about who I am and what Facebook is doing, but this is who I am.”

Zuckerberg: a leader who stands for nothing and allows for everything, as long as it’s profitable.