During a pep talk at a Facebook community summit last summer, CEO Mark Zuckerberg reached deep into his aspirational wellspring of utopian digital dreams to explain the lofty vision for his adolescent company. Zuckerberg was clinging to his desire to buy the world a virtual Coke and teach it to sing in harmony despite being pummeled for months on issues like fake news and privacy.
“But our society is still divided,” he declared. “Now I believe we have a responsibility to do even more. It’s not enough to simply connect the world, we must also work to bring the world closer together.”
Nine months later, Zuckerberg has succeeded in uniting a fractured world. Unfortunately for him, the subject uniting the world is a universal anger with Facebook.
Russia is mad about Facebook’s shutdown of accounts allegedly tied to a Russian misinformation organization. European leaders are investigation Facebook over its privacy rules, its WhatApp acquisition, fake news, and hate speech. Normally forgiving investors have driven Facebook’s stock down from $193.09 on February to $157.20 at the end of last week.
And now, there seems to be growing momentum for some kind of regulation in the United States. Last week, Facebook said it would support passage of a bill that would require more disclosure and transparency around political ads. By the same measure, the sentiment around Facebook has turned so negative that for some, Facebook agreeing to some form of regulation seems more imperious rather than compromising.
But now comes an even bigger test. Today, Zuckerberg will have preliminary meetings with some members of Congress. Then, Zuckerberg will appear before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday and the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. This may be his last chance to convince politicians that Facebook can fix its own problems and doesn’t warrant further regulations.
The odds may already be against Zuckerberg.
“My biggest worry with all this is that the privacy issue and what I call the propagandist issue are both too big for Facebook to fix, and that’s the frightening part,” Senator John Kennedy said on CBS’s Face the Nation. According to Reuters, when asked if lawmakers needed to regulate Facebook, Kennedy said: “It may be the case.”
In part, this slow-motion pratfall is the result of Facebook’s too-slow reaction to accusations that it was a source for peddling fake news and Russian manipulation during the 2016 election. But it has been compounded by an equally clumsy public relations response in which executives such as Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have been belatedly making apology tours in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.
But the bigger problem is the dawning realization in the U.S. is that the issue isn’t the result of a single Facebook policy, or a lack of priorities, but rather the fundamental consequence that flows from the very nature of the platform and its business model. At its heart, Facebook amasses a huge amount of granular data which partners can use to target ads and messages.
Despite occasional griping, people have been fine with this bargain. But over the past year, there has been a growing uneasiness that has bordered on the edge of open revolt. If the consciousness around the implications of these deals continues to grow, it has implications not just for Facebook, but for all platforms that count on the freemium data model.
With the Federal Trade Commission and many state attorney generals in hot pursuit, it’s not overstating things to say that Zuckerberg’s performance in front of a hostile panel of politicians may be his most critical public appearance since he started the company 14 years ago. Zuckerberg typically speaks in front of friendly, selected crowds, while fielding the occasional interview with an independent journalist.
Facing angry, belligerent interrogators in public will be a new challenge for him. It is a high-stakes gamble to put him in front of Congress, though avoiding the hearings might have made things even worse. Still, his performance could determine whether a company that has enjoyed relentless growth is going
“I do think that we could be an incident or two away … from the public demanding action,” Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) told the Wall Street Journal. “You could imagine a firestorm that would dwarf anything that’s come to date.”