It was billed as the downfall of America’s Nerd King, but half an hour into Day Two of Mark Zuckerberg’s Capitol Hill interrogation it had become more like watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary of life on an IT helpdesk.
He might have imagined he was there to provide helpful answers to tricky questions. He soon realised he was there to be ranted at.
The format was ridiculous, of course. A vast panel of congressmen and women had assembled, and each had been allotted four minutes, and no more, to ask questions not merely of one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet, but also one who, it is alleged, has provided the platform through which a shadowy company has tricked the American people into putting a baboon in the White House.
With only four minutes to go on, you would think you might not have time to begin your questions with lengthy anecdotes about how your mother-in-law likes to use her iPad to look at photos. Or how you’d once booked a hotel room for your family using a targeted advert on a website that’s got absolutely nothing to do with Facebook. Or with how much your grandson loves Instagram.
It would hardly have seemed far-fetched if some congressman or other had just come out and said: “Mr Zuckerberg, I’m sorry to be a nuisance I really am but would you mind just having a look at my phone for me? All I want to do is get on the wifi but it says I need a password and I’ve tried typing in the password and it says that’s not it and honestly I hate these things I really do.”
When you’re talking about Facebook to the CEO of Facebook, the knowledge mismatch is always going to be grotesque, so most of his interrogators did the sensible thing and simply refused to let him speak at all.
At one point, a woman called Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman from Tennessee, asked a 50-second long question, weaving in various complexities of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg got six words into his answer before being told: “I won’t allow you to filibuster.”
She was far from the only interrogator present to have been In a Relationship with The Sound of My Own Voice since before Facebook was invented.
In the long hours in which Zuckerberg faced questions from this vast panel, it is highly doubtful whether he spoke for an accumulated total of more than 10 minutes.
Several wanted to know why Facebook had censured some of their favourite right-wing bloggers. Another spent his full four minutes trying to extricate a promise to put an African American on Facebook’s senior leadership team. An important issue, of course, but it’s not what he’s there for.
Much is said and written about on new subjects like “information architecture”. How the structure of the platforms on which the modern world communicates influence the nature of that communication. Give people just 140 characters, for example, let them cloak themselves in anonymity and then give them direct access to the world’s rich and famous, and you have built a platform absolutely fine-tuned for vicious personal abuse.
It is imagined these are modern, technological problems. And wrongly so, we now know. The Congressional Committee predates Information Technology itself, and yet it had come up with this ingenious structure, honed to ensure that absolutely no information of any value whatsoever could be extracted at all.
That, in his two days on Capitol Hill, Facebook’s once amiable, jocular turbogeek appears to have transmogrified into a paranoid ghostly cyborg version of himself surely cannot be due to the fear of what he might have to face from a political class who showed themselves to know vanishingly small amounts about the topic at hand.
Rather, one gets the sense that Zuckerberg understands better than anyone else the truly terrifying potential of what he has created. That, with the willing help of his algorithms, a smart phone-addicted cretin sits in the Whitehouse, dragging the world towards all-out war in response to what he’s watching on breakfast TV.
Either that, or he thinks it’s all very unfair. After all, here he is carrying the can for all the world’s problems when it’s not Facebook that Donald Trump is straight on every morning threatening to bomb the Middle East before he’s even brushed his teeth. It’s Twitter. Who’s giving the Twitter guys a hard time? If there’s nuclear Armaggedon coming, it’s on their watch not his.
At the start, he had told them that Facebook was “an optimistic and idealistic company”, that it “took its responsibilities seriously”. That he had made “a big mistake” in not taking seriously enough its responsibility to police the kind of information that was being shared on its network.
My own knowledge of Facebook and data and algorithms and one of the most complex stories in decades is less than encyclopaedic. But I did think it was incredibly obvious a couple of years ago when Facebook launched and aggressively promoted a new feature called Facebook Live, allowing users to broadcast themselves to their friends and the wider world as if they had their own live TV channel, that it would encourage psychopaths into committing and broadcasting horrific acts of violence. And sure enough, someone was arrested in North Carolina and charged with committing murder on Facebook Live in February of this year.
The mere fact that Zuckerberg needs to be dragged to Washington in order to put on the record that he takes his responsibilities seriously is far more revealing of just how seriously he takes them than anything any grandstanding politician allowed him a spare second to utter.
One congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, simply read a list of all the times, from 2001 onwards, that Zuckerberg has been forced to make grovelling public apologies. It was not a short list, and though she didn’t quite go so far as to let him speak, it’s fair to say it said more than he would have done.