Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There’s no point being vague about it: Mark Zuckerberg won.
Considering what could have possibly awaited the Facebook CEO when he testified before Congress he got off easy. Despite the media hype preceding these proceedings, to describe what Zuckerberg faced as a “grilling” would be ridiculous. Zuckerberg emerged unburnt, not because he showed up wearing an asbestos suit, but because Congress never really turned up the heat. In order to win, all Zuckerberg needed to do was to show up, mouth some frail apologies, repeat his standard manifesto on Facebook’s earnest techno-utopianism, and avoid saying anything too damning. And Congress pretty much let him do that.
This is not to suggest that Zuckerberg will look back fondly on his time before Congress. The performance that Zuckerberg turned in was at turns repetitive, unconvincing, reliant on obfuscation, and consisted largely of pointless platitudes about “community.” For a man who has publicly flirted with Presidential ambitions, Zuckerberg revealed himself to be stunningly uncharismatic and thoroughly unbelievable in his attempts to mime empathy. And there were a few moments in the testimony when Zuckerberg’s testimony was undoubtedly making Facebook’s attorneys groan. While the entire testimony had the feel of a theatrical performance, Zuckerberg revealed himself to be quite a bad actor as he squirmed visibly whenever an uncomfortable topic was broached.
In fairness, Zuckerberg squirmed quite a bit.
When Zuckerberg faced questions about racism, hate speech, and the sale of drugs – he grew wide eyed. When Zuckerberg faced questions about privacy and choice – he repeated the same unconvincing lines he always does. When Zuckerberg was asked if Facebook created profiles on people who don’t actually use the site, when he was asked if Facebook really deletes user profiles, and when asked if Facebook stops tracking users when they sign out – he struggled as best he could to avoid giving a damning answer, but frequently wound up giving exactly the wrong answer. During a break he left his talking points out and visible, allowing them to be photographed by a reporter and widely disseminated. And though Zuckerberg reveled in repeating the lines about how he had founded Facebook in his dorm room, when he was forced to admit that Facebook was really an outgrowth of the “hot or not” site he had built in that dorm room – he looked less than pleased.
But for all of Zuckerberg’s squirming, for all his dodging and equivocating, the very format of the testimony was concocted in such a way as to provide him with plenty of avenues for escape. True, some Senators asked tough questions, and on the second day of testimony (when Zuckerberg was before the House) he certainly faced some more confrontational inquisitors. Yet, giving Senators five minutes each, and House members four minutes each – meant that whenever he was cornered, Zuckerberg only had to figure out a way to run out his questioner’s clock. And he exceled at doing that. Furthermore, whenever one questioner managed to catch Zuckerberg up, or open a line of inquiry where he was clearly uncomfortable, the next questioner quickly swept in to defend Zuckerberg by angrily denouncing the very idea of regulation or to blather on about American exceptionalism.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has not been kind to Facebook, and Zuckerberg entered the testimony willing to admit that maybe some regulation was necessary. But as he emerged from his two days of testifying, Zuckerberg must have been suppressing the urge to cheer at the signs that Congress lacks the political will to pursue the sort of serious regulation that could actually check Facebook’s power. Besides, Facebook’s stock price is rebounding, and the media is already moving on from this story: the expectation that Trump is preparing to do something catastrophically unwise or apocalyptically stupid is sure to shift attention off of Facebook’s woes.
Had Zuckerberg faced a group of individuals genuinely interested in protecting the freedom and privacy of Internet users, he would have been in trouble. But, instead, Zuckerberg was just facing Congress.
The moments in Zuckerberg’s testimony when he appeared most uncomfortable, and the moments when one could imagine something productive emerging from his testimony, were the times when Zuckerberg was forced to acknowledge the ideology underlying Facebook. Certainly, Zuckerberg did a good job of pivoting to his bromides about “community” and “connection” – but periodically these bubbles were pierced and surveillance capitalism was laid bare. Furthermore, there was frequently a wonderful clash that emerged between the techno-utopian dreams that Zuckerberg espoused and the techno-dystopian realities that they seemed to express. Time and again, Zuckerberg emphasized that AI would fix everything, while Zuckerberg’s testimony made clear that the Facebook employees who are building these systems (and thus building their own biases into those systems) should not be trusted.
At its best, Zuckerberg’s testimony demonstrated that even though Facebook is a tool which many people try to use for democratic purposes – the technology is itself ultimately an authoritarian one. Zuckerberg’s testimony made this contradiction clear.
This point was starkly revealed in, what was almost certainly, one of Zuckerberg’s most damning confessions. Namely: that Facebook has a profile of you, even if you don’t have a profile on Facebook. This admission gives the lie to everything else that Zuckerberg said about freedom, choice, and privacy. It also served to demonstrate that when Zuckerberg talks about “users” this is a category that actually includes anyone who is using the Internet. An argument is often made that Facebook’s users “know what they’re getting into,” that it’s their own fault if they choose not to read the Terms of Service, and that they can always use the privacy tools that Facebook makes available to them. However, this becomes utterly meaningless when Facebook acknowledges that it has a profile on you even if “knowing what you were getting into” meant that you never clicked “agree” on the Terms of Service. And thus, Zuckerberg equally smashed the hopes of the #DeleteFacebook campaign by admitting that it doesn’t really matter if you are on or off of Facebook – and his circuitous answers on when Facebook actually deletes your information were a quiet sort of admission that Facebook never truly does.
As the philosopher Paul Virilio once observed, “the problem is not to use technology but to realize that one is used by it.”[i] And what Zuckerberg made clear is that, when it comes to Facebook, we are being “used by it” even when we are not using it.
What Zuckerberg’s comments while testifying demonstrate is that the only real way to check Facebook’s power is through significant regulation (which could include breaking the company up). But what was seen repeatedly throughout Zuckerberg’s testimony is that Congress does not appear interested in passing such regulation. Certainly, there are some members of Congress who might be willing to push for it, but based on what was seen it hardly seems as if this group has enough votes.
It is not so much that Zuckerberg’s testimony offered any revelations, as that it offered some uncomfortable confirmations. What Zuckerberg confessed is the degree to which Facebook is always watching us, always gathering data on us, and (to say it again) that it doesn’t matter if we’ve “agreed” to let Facebook do that or not. Lest there be any doubt, Facebook is certainly not the only company about which this can be said – but there’s something significant about Zuckerberg saying it before Congress.
Not long ago, if you leveled these accusations against Facebook you’d be mocked as a Luddite, or derided as a paranoiac wearing a tinfoil hat – but now? It’s just the acknowledged truth. Whereas social critics in the twentieth century looked warily upon the advances being made in computer technology and warned of its dangerous implications for society, Zuckerberg’s testimony has proved that they were prescient in their predictions. Such critics were often derided for their fearful admonitions about the risks of living in a society where democracy fell victim to complex systems of totalizing technological control – but that was the world about which Zuckerberg testified. If the makers of Black Mirror were looking for a scary direction for the next season they could simply cut Zuckerberg’s testimony into one hour chunks and release it as is.
There’s no point being vague about it: Mark Zuckerberg won.
But there was one important area in which Zuckerberg suffered an important defeat: sitting before the elected officials in a democracy Zuckerberg confirmed that there is nothing democratic about Facebook.
It’s a shame that most members of Congress seemed to miss that point.
[i] Virlio, Paul and Lotringer, Sylvère. Pure War. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008. Pg. 92.