The Senate Tries to Figure Out Facebook

Senators grappled less with the cultural and political implications of Facebook than with the basic mechanics by which it operates.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a U.S. Senate joint hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

The sound of the camera shutters told the story. On Tuesday, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg entered Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, dozens of photographers crowded the witness table, and the space filled with the sound of rain beating on a tin roof. By the hearing’s end, five hours later, it faded to a slow drizzle.

Zuckerberg had come, ostensibly, to discuss Cambridge Analytica’s use of data provided by Facebook users during the 2016 presidential election. He was scheduled to testify at 2:15 p.m., but the line for the public gallery started to form at 7:15 a.m. Reporters and staffers crammed into their reserved seats hours in advance. People seemed giddy to be there.

But by the end of the meandering hearing, observers were left scratching their heads, wondering why they’d convened in the first place.

When Zuckerberg first entered the room, the power dynamics were plainly visible. Senators perched, glowering, above the curved panel. Zuckerberg, visibly uncomfortable, took his seat, a thick cushion propping up his five-foot-seven frame. It didn’t take a Silicon Valley devotee to see that the unblinking Zuckerberg was out of his element. His arms hung awkwardly in his pressed blue suit. His neck was as stiff as a two-by-four.

Which is to say that Zuckerberg seemed as anxious as the rest of us, convinced that something “extraordinary”—to borrow Senator John Thune’s words—was about to unfold.

Most who stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee are prepared to defend something. Republicans and Democrats alike prefer to ask questions to which they already know the answers, daring witnesses to challenge their carefully considered take on the issue at hand. They also prefer to ask questions that form a narrative; it is the job of a witness to either confirm that narrative, or push back convincingly.

Zuckerberg did neither, but he didn’t have to. If anything was extraordinary about Tuesday’s hearing, it was how quickly the power dynamic shifted—arguably before Zuckerberg even opened his mouth. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley, for example, appeared to read his opening remarks from Facebook’s Wikipedia page, ticking off a laundry list of facts (Facebook has two billion users! Offices in 13 U.S. cities!), and inadvertently signaling the language barrier to come. Within minutes, Zuckerberg was fielding questions from lawmakers who, it seemed, did not know the answers.

The hearing thus devolved into a free-for-all. Senators used their time to litigate their personal concerns about Facebook, phrased, conveniently, in television-ad-friendly soundbites. “Appreciate you being here, appreciate you apologizing,” Senator Catherine Cortez Masto said. “But stop apologizing and let’s make a change.” (If Cortez Masto articulated a change to be made, it was lost on Zuckerberg.) Senator Ted Cruz hammered Zuckerberg on Facebook’s alleged bias against conservative content; in response, Zuckerberg affirmed his support of free speech. And that was one of the more substantive exchanges of the session: On the whole, senators didn’t grapple with the cultural and political implications of Facebook so much as with the basic mechanics by which it operates.

It’s not surprising that Facebook’s stock soared over the course of the hearing. Almost immediately, Zuckerberg’s ashen face regained its color. His wooden posture quickly loosened. The hearing became a real-world simulation of a common Facebook experience: a grandparent asking their grandchild in all caps how, exactly, all this works. Which meant that when lawmakers did ask pertinent questions—Senator Cory Booker, for instance, pressed Zuckerberg on discriminatory housing ads on the site—they lacked the bearings to challenge the Facebook mogul when he dodged the topic and promised “to get back” to them.

Reporters, photographers, and other observers dropped off like flies. This wasn’t because of the late hour—Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi testimony was 11 hours long—but because it became increasingly clear that, if there were a puzzle that Zuckerberg was to help Congress solve, it would not be presented that evening.

It seemed appropriate, then, that in the last few minutes of the hearing, Senator Jon Tester asked Zuckerberg how he would take measures to ensure the Cambridge Analytica episode never happened again. Zuckerberg responded by simply reiterating the three steps he’d outlined in his opening statement.

Tester seemed satisfied. And suddenly, everyone was back where they had started. Only this time, just a few photographers felt it was worth a snapshot.