A Tight-Lipped Zuckerberg: The Face of Facebook in the Congressional Hot Seat

So it’s over. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent two days being questioned by Congress about Russian and Cambridge Analytica malfeasance involving Facebook’s platform, and the verdict from Wall Street is that Zuckerberg did great. Over those two days, the stock price rose more than 5%, adding over $24 billion to Facebook’s capitalization and personally netting Zuckerberg around $3 billion. That’s not a bad return on Facebook’s investment of hiring a team from the law firm WilmerHale to put Zuckerberg through “charm school” before the hearings began.

So far so good, but how did Zuckerberg really perform? Can Congressional leaders and the American public believe what Facebook’s CEO said? The nonverbal signals suggest otherwise.

The goal was for Zuckerberg to come across as humble, contrite, and trustworthy. That would be Zuckerberg as kindly Dr. Jekyll (in a newfound suit and tie) and not the evil Mr. Hyde version (in his usual gray t-shirt and hoodie) as emphasized in the movie The Social Network. Yes, Zuckerberg (mostly) said all the right things. “Our top priority has always been our social mission,” Zuckerberg intoned right on-message as he spoke of “connecting people” and “building communities.” But often the CEO wasn’t especially on-emotion when it came to appearing open-minded and open-hearted regarding users’ concerns about privacy and transparency.  Examples abound.

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 In an opening statement mea culpa, Zuckerberg told the Senators “I’m sorry” while glaring at them defiantly.  Is Facebook a monopoly? Zuckerberg managed a forced smile as he asserted that it “certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” But by then, his eyebrows had already shot up, while averting his gaze, in initially reacting to Senator Lindsey Graham’s query. Clearly, the question had hit its mark.

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Sometimes, Zuckerberg backtracked. For example, Senator Diane Feinstein wanted to know: “Why not ban Cambridge [Analytica from accessing data]?” Of course, the real answer is that Facebook’s business model depends on harvesting and sharing people’s personal data. So Zuckerberg’s voice got tight and his mouth pulled wide in fear as he dodged the question by saying Cambridge Analytica wasn’t an advertiser (and therefore seemingly immune to any ban). After a break and conferring with “his team,” however, Zuckerberg informed the Senators he’d “misspoke.” Zuckerberg gave that admission with his eyes wide, alert to whatever danger his fudging might bring.

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All in all, it’s true that the Senators and Representatives didn’t extract any firm, worthwhile promises from Zuckerberg to do better in terms of users’ privacy. The team that was so quick to inform Zuckerberg that he’d misspoken in regards to Cambridge Analytica’s initial status as an advertiser apparently couldn’t be as quick to provide specific solutions for the concerns Congress was raising. Relatively unscathed, an ever more confident Zuckerberg eventually moved by degrees to being his usual reckless, happy-go-lucky self.

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Asked point blank by a member of the House of Representatives on day two of his testimony, “Why should we trust you?” Zuckerberg felt comfortable blithely smiling his way through his answer.

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At 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California, “move fast and break things” remains the unofficial model of an enterprise that first found its footing by posting photos of Harvard female students being often harshly ranked by other (male) students regarding their beauty. Anger was Zuckerberg’s primary mode during the hearings, a closed, tightly-expressed emotion about wanting to be in control and move ahead as you see fit.  Zuckerberg’s initial, angry Mr. Hyde tendency, on display this week on Capitol Hill, doesn’t bode well for Congress or users getting anything close to what they want from Facebook going forward. Advertisers, well, that’s another story altogether.

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