It was meant to be a hearing about its Libra cryptocurrency, but it quickly became a grilling for CEO Mark Zuckerberg about all of Facebook’s scandals and past failures to protect its user privacy.
“In order for us to make decisions about Libra, I think we need to kind of dig into your past behaviour and Facebook’s past behaviour with respect to our democracy,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, before asking the key question: “Mr Zuckerberg, what year and month did you personally become aware of Cambridge Analytica?”
His response was: “I’m not sure of the exact time. But it was probably around the time when it became public, I think it was around March of 2018, I could be wrong.”
This is hugely problematic, as Ocasio-Cortez (who is known online by her initials AOC) pointed out: “This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company that had catastrophic impacts with regard to 2016… and you don’t know?”
Zuckerberg was flummoxed. He was not the self-assured tech billionaire of his last appearance. And he got less and less assured the more she probed, moving onto Facebooks’ stated rules that it won’t fact-check political advertisement, even if they contain patent falsehoods.
“So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that’s just a pretty simple yes or no,” Ocasio-Cortez asked him. “Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that 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, what’s fair game.”
Like a deer in the headlights, he replied: “Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably.”
Zuckerberg wilted under the numerous – and aggressive – spates of questioning from US lawmakers who are clearly more clued up, and more tech-savvy than the last time he appeared in April 2018. Back then, the booster cushion used to make the diminutive Zuckerberg appear taller was the main source of schadenfreude for Facebook critics. Last week he simply had no answers for multiple probing questions.
Harper’s Bazaar even suggested a new drinking game, requiring the participants to drink whenever Zuckerberg said “congresswoman”.
Congressman Brad Sherman masterfully debunked Zuckerberg’s claims that Libra will help the unbanked into the world’ financial system and highlighted the anonymous currency would be better suited to drug dealers.
“The poor and unbanked need pesos, they need dollars that they can buy something at a local store. You’ve done no effort to help the unbanked anywhere else and any other time,” Sherman said. Key Libra financial participants – including Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and eBay – have withdrawn from the project, which appears unlikely to launch anytime soon.
“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 and tax evaders,” Sherman added.
It’s hard to argue against that. Just as it is that Facebook has failed to protect its users from falsehoods, and will continue to allow political ads containing them. Zuckerberg is going to need more than a booster cushion to get out of this mess.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail