Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress this week has the incendiary ingredients for compelling political theater: an arrogant high-tech billionaire facing off with grand-standing lawmakers at a moment when Americans are increasingly anxious about protecting their privacy from Russian trolls and Facebook algorithms.
The showdown makes for a TV spectacle similar to last year’s testimony by former FBI Director James B. Comey, which was watched by 19.5 million viewers and followed by millions more online. Unlike congressional hearings of decades past, such as Watergate, which were broadcast by a small universe of three networks, Zuckerberg’s appearance will play across a splintered media landscape that includes streaming, Twitter, YouTube and cable channels such as CNN.
Perhaps more than anyone else, the 33-year-old Zuckerberg, whose fortune is estimated at more than $63 billion, personifies how technology has reinvented how we get our news and communicate in a world that no longer waits for the evening news. The Senate hearing room may have the trappings of old formalities, but Zuckerberg’s testimony will be shot through a real-time prism and immediately debated across blogs, chat rooms, Instagram and other insatiable platforms that now propel national conversations.
He is certain to encounter intense criticism during hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday on how personal details of 87 million of his Facebook users ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm connected to President Trump during the 2016 election. It is a showdown that could culminate in a revealing cultural moment as the nation peeks deeper into the manipulations and dangers of internet companies and social media.
“If I were Zuckerberg I’d prepare for not just a grilling but probably a pummeling,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I don’t think he’s used to this. He thinks he is. He’s done a lot of public appearances and they’ll prep him like crazy. I can just imagine how many PR people he’s got training him. How many millions they’re spending to get him prepared. I don’t think anybody would want to be in his position.”
But we are in an era of ‘fake news’ and an endlessly tweeting reality TV show president who has raised the bar on the capacity to unnerve or shock us. The Zuckerberg hearings could coalesce into a seminal turning point on our relationship with technology or become an aside in a daily political maelstrom that has numbed us with its audacity.
The most memorable televised congressional testimonies — including Watergate, Anita Hill and the Army-McCarthy hearings — unfolded in divisive times when the country was forced to take stock of the democracy and ethos that defined it. The hearings offered charlatans and heroes, revelations of corruption and paeans to justice, as if paper-rattling soap operas, mostly starring white men in suits, spun out in grainy footage beneath the Capitol rotunda.
The hearings have often riveted Americans with glimpses of the sins and misdeeds of the powerful and, at times, a front row seat to deeper societal problems. The Anita Hill hearings during the 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court confronted sexual harassment decades before the #MeToo movement. Hill’s testimony, which was watched by more than 20 million households and argued over in diners, taverns and classrooms, spooled out in a morality play rife with stunning moments that sullied the decorum of one of the nation’s highest offices.
Hill told Congress that Thomas, whom she worked for at the Department of Education, made sexually suggestive comments, including “women having sex with animals” and discussing his “sexual prowess.” She testified that he once asked her: “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” Thomas, who scolded senators that the hearing amounted to a “high-tech lynching,” denied the allegations, stirring a legacy of slavery and civil rights.
It is unlikely such visceral images will emerge from Zuckerberg’s testimony before the joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His challenge is to reassure lawmakers and 2.2 billion active Facebook users that his company will improve privacy controls. Zuckerberg, who can be aloof and reticent, will have to stretch beyond his elusive boy genius persona to convince a Congress wary of Russian election meddling and the pervasive, secretive reach of Silicon Valley that he is genuine about reform in the tech industry.
He is expected to strike a contrite tone: “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg is expected to tell lawmakers, according to his prepared comments released Monday by the Energy and Commerce Committee. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.”
Once the bank of photographers recedes from Zuckerberg’s table and committee members adjust their microphones and talking points, a bristling mix of personalities, egos and brinkmanship is expected to unfold. Zuckerberg, who in recent days has promised to better oversee political ads on Facebook, will be looking to instill confidence and shore up his company’s stock price. Lawmakers will jab at his weak spots for inconsistencies, knowing that billionaires don’t often illicit sympathy.
“My guess is that a fair number of the questions will be boiled down to this phrase: How could you?” said Sabato. “How could you endanger people’s privacy in this way? How could you underestimate this for so long? And how could you lie? He’ll say he wasn’t lying, but it’s going to be tough. There’s loads of Democrats who feel he bears some responsibility for the presidency of Donald Trump. They’re going to take a pound of flesh.”
Both sides will be playing to the public — recent congressional hearings have live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube and aired on channels like C-Span — while testing each other over the bounds of government regulation on one of the planet’s most successful corporations. Appearance and demeanor count for much; Zuckerberg will want to avoid the kind of tone-deaf foible the Big Three automakers made in 2008 when, while asking for a $25-billion taxpayer bailout, arrived in Washington on private jets.
“There is a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hand, saying that they’re going to be trimming down and streamlining their businesses,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) while looking down at the chief executives of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford. “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo. It kind of makes you a little bit suspicious.”
Similar sentiments from senators were directed at Goldman Sachs executives during hearings in 2010 about the housing mortgage crisis. “The idea that Wall Street came out of this thing just fine, thank you, is just something that just grates on people,” said Sen. Edward E. Kaufman Jr. (D-Del). “They think you didn’t just come out fine because it was luck. They think you guys just really gamed this thing real well.”
Congressional hearings are often a time of reckoning when political troubles can be distilled in a few, short dramatic sentences broadcast to the nation. During Sen. Joe McCarthy’s infamous hearings to root out alleged communist sympathizers in the 1950s, which among other things charged that the Army was soft on communism, Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the Army, encapsulated the revilement much of the country had toward the senator when he snapped:
“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The 1973 Watergate hearings left the country rapt: One estimate found that 85% of U.S. households watched at least part of the more than 300 hours of the investigation. Sen. Sam Ervin, glasses sliding down his nose and his North Carolina drawl echoing through the chamber, presided with the gravitas of a patriarch and the sly wit of a country lawyer. It quickly became apparent that President Nixon’s fate over the bugging of Democratic headquarters was at the heart of a constitutional crisis.
“I began by telling the president,” said John Dean, White House counsel, who had sweat on his brow but was prim in a tan suit as he leaned into silver microphones, “that there was a cancer growing on the presidency.”
Sen. Howard Baker Jr. asked the question that would become shorthand for Watergate and later government investigations into corruption: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”