Zuckerberg set for trial by fire in first testimony
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is facing the biggest political test of his career as he prepares to testify in back-to-back congressional hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for both Zuckerberg, 33, and his company, with the public and members of Congress demanding answers about Facebook’s privacy practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Lawmakers are likely to come armed with tough questions for Zuckerberg, whom they have long wanted to see in the hearing room. He has never before testified to Congress despite having run the social media giant for well over a decade.
Experts who have coached individuals preparing for congressional testimony said that for Zuckerberg to walk away with minimal damage to Facebook’s reputation and his own, he needs to accept that he can’t try to beat lawmakers on their own turf. The key, they said, is for Zuckerberg to show remorse and let lawmakers have their say.
“I think style and demeanor are very important. He’s got to try to be authentic and humble and avoid any degree of arrogance and glibness,” said Lanny Davis, an author, attorney and crisis communications expert.
Davis pointed to Bill Gates’s congressional testimony in 1998 over Microsoft’s monopoly status as a potential worst-case scenario for Zuckerberg. At the time, many thought that Gates came off as cocky and dismissive.
Zuckerberg has been forced reluctantly into the spotlight by the revelation that the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which did work for President Trump’s campaign, obtained data on upwards of 87 million Facebook users in the United States without their consent.
After he and other top Facebook officials were initially criticized for not publicly addressing the crisis, Zuckerberg and his allies have mounted a public relations offensive that has included several high-profile issues.
The Facebook team has received mixed reviews in this effort, and it appears the company will need to take further action to restore public confidence.
Since the revelations of the breach, Facebook’s stock has taken a beating; a poor performance from the CEO could spur a further slide.
“I think that a lot of the future discussions over how the internet is regulated and monitored and designed is going to be discussed and in part determined over the course of these two days,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow who focuses on technology issues at the think tank New America. He previously worked as a privacy and public policy advisor at Facebook.
Zuckerberg’s testimony is sure to create a spectacle on Capitol Hill, likely drawing wall-to-wall coverage from cable news networks.
Political communications experts say that the last comparable congressional testimonies were in 2009 and 2010, following the financial crisis, when banking and automotive industry executives took a drubbing from lawmakers. Public trust of those industries plunged at the time.
“This is going to come closer in tone and drama of that than anything else I can think of,” said Michael Sheehan, a political communications expert who has coached clients before congressional testimony.
How Zuckerberg will fare in the witness chair remains to be seen.
His public reputation suffered after the 2010 film “The Social Network” portrayed him as a neurotic, humorless genius who created Facebook largely because he didn’t fit in with his Harvard University classmates.
Since the film, Zuckerberg has worked to improve his public image, giving high-profile TV interviews and speaking to large audiences. Last year, Zuckerberg announced he would visit and meet people in all 50 states, sparking talk that he might be preparing to run for president.
But Zuckerberg has never before faced the adversarial public questioning he’s likely to see in his appearances before the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“No one in the audience will be smiling or nodding when he speaks like he’s used to,” Sheehan said. “Underneath the table will be about 50 photographers. Every time he lifts his head up he’ll hear a steady click of photographers snapping photos. That can be disorienting.”
A Democratic aide said that lawmakers on their side of the aisle will likely push Zuckerberg to “account for Facebook’s failure to protect consumers’ data” and its “subsequent failure to take meaningful action for years following the data breach.”
“It’s become clear that the current system does not encourage companies to do the right thing until they have to respond to public outrage,” the aide said, explaining that Democrats are interested in exploring more regulations.
Republicans have approached the hearing less aggressively but have said that they still plan to firmly question Zuckerberg.
“Our joint hearing will be a public conversation with the CEO of this powerful and influential company about his vision for addressing problems that have generated significant concern about Facebook’s role in our democracy, bad actors using the platform, and user privacy,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement on Tuesday.
The biggest risk for Facebook from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that people stop using the platform. Calls for people to “delete Facebook” pose a huge threat to the company, which essentially monetizes its users.
Facebook use among those under 25 has already dropped precipitously, though many younger users are still on Facebook-owned Instagram.
If Zuckerberg stumbles, the harm to his company could be severe.
“This could quicken and increase the generational divide in terms of who’s sticking with Facebook. It could be the beginning of abandon ship for millennials and the younger generations,” Sheehan said.