Do members of Congress understand technology enough to ask the right questions?
That’s what many are wondering after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s first day testifying on Capitol Hill. After yesterday’s appearance before the Senate, he will answer questions from the House of Representatives today.
Early analysis seems to be favorable for Zuckerberg’s performance, with Facebook’s stock price rebounding and pundits giving him a passing grade.
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.
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On Twitter, the discussion was less substantive.
Much hay was made of Zuckerberg’s appearance, including a large cushion he used to give himself extra height while seated before the Senate panel.
Look 👀 here….Mr Zuckerberg has his very own booster seat!! pic.twitter.com/hlCK5F4Rli
— 🇺🇸🚂Steff🚂🇺🇸 (@Steffs_tweets) April 11, 2018
In one memorable exchange, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) asked Zuckerberg whether he would share publicly the name of the hotel where he had stayed the night before. Zuckerberg smirked uncomfortably, but he regained his composure as he declined to give that personal information.
— Vox (@voxdotcom) April 11, 2018
That composure served Zuckerberg well—to a point. “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, among others, likened the Facebook CEO to an android.
“Look at him — it looks like he’s in ‘Westworld’ right now.”
— ABC News (@ABC) April 11, 2018
— [ P M ] (@pedromamede) April 11, 2018
In a moment of irony—and a lesson for all crisis communicators—Zuckerberg’s preparatory notes were leaked when a photographer captured them and media outlets scrutinized them.
Many noted that Zuckerberg was prepared to answer harder questions than he was asked, including whether he should resign.
An Associated Press photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg‘s notes reveal he was prepared for senators to ask him about resigning from his company at a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary committees Tuesday afternoon.
“I made mistakes,” the note said, under a bullet point labeled “Resign?” “Big challenge, but we’ve solved problems before, going to solve this one.”
Communicators should realize this: Your spokesperson’s notes could be a way to add to your response or address public concerns that aren’t brought up in an important interview.
The notes also included what Mr. Zuckerberg should say if asked whether Facebook should be broken up. “U.S. tech companies key asset for America,” was the suggested reply. “Breakup strengthens Chinese companies.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, asked if Facebook was a monopoly. But he did not press Mr. Zuckerberg on whether the company should be divided, and the answer citing Chinese competition was not used.
“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” Mr. Graham asked.
“It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Mr. Zuckerberg replied.
Zuckerberg’s notes also primed him to take a jab at Facebook’s critics, but he was never asked the question.
The New York Times continued:
Mr. Zuckerberg’s notes also guide a response to recent criticism from Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, who has described his own company as a far more robust defender of consumer privacy.
“Lots of stories about apps misusing Apple data, never seen Apple notify people,” read the notes. But Mr. Cook’s comments were not raised during the hearing, and the response was not used.
However, some preparation should be more masked. Journalists were also able to find the responses that Facebook probably hoped no one was thinking about.
The New York Times added:
Another section warns Mr. Zuckerberg about comments to avoid. In response to any questions about European Union privacy and data protections, the notes instructed that he should not say Facebook already complies with a data privacy law that goes into effect in May.
Zuckerberg returns for another day of questions, this time from a House panel, but many are already calling the contest in favor of Zuckerberg and his company.
Mark Zuckerberg did just fine in his first turn in the Congressional hot seat. He was confident. He capably tackled many of the queries proposed last week by Bloomberg columnists. The 33-year-old billionaire appeared humble throughout much of the hearing, with only a few smug smiles.
The best news for Facebook Inc. the company was that Zuckerberg ably deflected any challenges to the beating heart of its economic model: its hungry data collection and the fine-tuned targeted advertising based on that data. Zuckerberg’s success is a win for anyone primarily concerned with the company’s market value. But it’s a loss for the rest of us.
What did you think of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Senate?