WASHINGTON, April 11, 2018 – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived at the Rayburn House Office Building Wednesday for the second day of his first trip to Capitol Hill as a witness, this time before members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His prepared testimony was the same, but the atmosphere was quite different.
Not only did Zuckerberg have to contend with slightly more inquisitors – 55, compared with the 42 members of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees he dealt with yesterday – but the atmosphere a more raucous one as well, stemming from the sometimes younger and more rabidly partisan nature of the so-called “people’s house.”
Some of the more tech-savvy committee members laid into Zuckerberg for his company’s record of privacy failures over the years. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore, lauded Facebook as “an American success story” while invoking the company’s notorious – and retired – motto of “move fast and break things.”
“While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured. I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things,” Walden said during his opening statement.
Same statement, different day
Zuckerberg, for his part, began his testimony with the same opening statement he gave at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, repeating word-for-word his apology for Facebook's failures on privacy, "fake news," and other issues that have been brought to light since Donald Trump's shock victory in the 2016 election.
“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here," he said, making his statement the latest in a string of similar apologies he's had to make over the years.
But Zuckerberg's audience appeared less impressed – and far less deferential – than their older colleagues in the more sedate upper chamber. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose role representing part of Silicon Valley makes her no stranger to technology, chided Zuckerberg for Facebook’s failure to spell out its privacy practices in “clear and pedestrian language.”
Her Democratic colleague from New Mexico, Rep. Ben Lujan, also noted that Facebook had allowed sometimes-malicious actors to scrape massive amounts of data from the site, and only disabled that ability a week before Wednesday’s hearing.
“Facebook knew about this in 2013 and 2015, but you didn’t turn the feature off until Wednesday of last week,” said Lujan said. “This is essentially a tool for these malicious actors to steal a person’s identity and put the finishing touches on it.”
Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., compared the data practices of Zuckerberg’s “cozy community” on Facebook’s data practices to the film “The Truman Show,” before asking: “Who owns the virtual you? Is it you or them?”
Zuckerberg began to repeat his answer from yesterday asserting that everyone owns their own data before Blackburn cut him off. “I can’t let you filibuster right now.”
Diamond and Silk take center stage, and stay there
Once she'd silenced Zuckerberg, Blackburn then changed the subject from privacy and consumer protection to that of two people who weren’t present for the hearing – but ended up being the unlikely stars of it nevertheless -- pro-Trump social media personalities – and frequent Fox News guests – Diamond and Silk.
The pair, whose legal names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, are sisters, and two of President Donald Trump’s most vocal African-American supporters, who according to The Daily Beast, their frequent Fox News appearances have made them among Trump’s favorite TV talking heads. Earlier this week, they complained that Facebook had restricted their ability to push notifications of new content out to fans of their Facebook page because their content was deemed “unsafe to the community,” a decision which some conservative commentators and Republicans had incorrectly characterized as a “ban” or “censorship.”
“Diamond and Silk is not terrorism,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn wasn’t the first – or only -- committee member to invoke Diamond Silk as unlikely heroes or open other lines of inquiry what conservatives call a battle against censorship from a tech industry based in predominantly-liberal Silicon Valley.
The subject of the sisters' complaints about Facebook first made it into the hearing record when the committee's former chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, devoted his allotted question time to queries sourced from his constituents using his own Facebook page, appropiately enough.
"In that specific case, our team made an enforcement error and we have already gotten in touch with them to reverse it,” Zuckerberg said.
A 'very important question' about possible changes to the Facebook algorithm
Rep. Steven Scalise, R.-La., a computer scientist by training, asked what Zuckerberg called a “very important question” - whether Facebook executives directed any changes to the algorithm the site employs to determine which stories its’ users see that would bias it in any way against conservative content.
Zuckerberg's response was unequivocal: There is absolutely no directive in any of the changes that we make to have a bias in anything that we do.
His denials, however, didn't appear to convince Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., who sometime later returned the hearing's focus to questions about Diamond and Silk, even going so far as to display a poster of the duo before apparently asking a question on their behalf.
“Diamond and Silk have a question for you, and that question is, what is unsafe about two black women supporting President Donald J. Trump?” Long asked.
“Nothing is unsafe about that,” Zuckerberg replied.
(Photo of Diamond and Silk with then-candidate Donald Trump, Creative Commons licensed from Flickr user mccauleys-corner)