Critic's Notebook: Mark Zuckerberg Testimony a Long Way Off 'The Social Network' Persona

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Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook founder gets defensive during his grilling by frequently hostile and skeptical senators.

Mark Zuckerberg testified before a congressional committee today, in the first of two appearances. It wasn't the Mark Zuckerberg we've come to know and not love. Gone was the T-shirt and hoodie. The Facebook founder was clad in a sharply pressed suit and tasteful light blue tie. He was respectful to a fault, beginning nearly every response with the title "Senator." He seemed perfectly reasonable, which made for a long and tedious afternoon. Long before his five and a half hours of testimony ended, you longed for him to channel his inner Jesse Eisenberg from The Social Network and snarl epithets at his frequently hostile questioners.  

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it's a safe bet to assume that any presidential aspirations Zuckerberg may have held are thoroughly squashed. He certainly didn't cut a commanding figure in his testimony, which began with a prepared statement of apology.

"We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake, and it was my mistake and I'm sorry," he said meekly. "It's not enough to just connect people. We have to make sure those connections are positive," he went on. It's an admirable goal but seems a bit pie in the sky. But not as pie in the sky as when he added, "Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools but to make sure that they're used for good." He sounded less like the CEO of a tech company than the head of Marvel's Avengers.

The session wasn't without its surreal moments, not the least of which was hearing 84-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) utter the phrase "relationship status." Many of the senators were openly combative. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) warned, "If you and other social media companies don't get your act in order, none of us are going to have privacy anymore" as Zuckerberg looked like a deer caught in the headlights. John Thune (R-S.D.) asked, "Why should we trust Facebook to make the necessary changes?"

"We've made a lot of mistakes," Zuckerberg admitted. "We're going through a broader philosophical shift in how we're running the company." Zuckerberg was often short on specifics, constantly saying that his "team" would have to get back to senators about issues. In a clear effort to garner sympathy, he stressed his humble origins, frequently reminding us that he started the company in his "dorm room." (We get it, Mark. We've seen the movie.)

Responding to a question about foreign interference in our elections, Zuckerberg told Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "You're not allowed to have a fake account on Facebook. Your information has to be authentic." It's too bad the same rule doesn't apply to dating sites.

The exchange with Lindsey Graham was a highlight, no surprise considering that the South Carolina Republican senator is such a cut-up. He asked which company represented Facebook's biggest competition, a question that seemed to stymie Zuckerberg before he reluctantly gave up the names of such companies as Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. "You don't think you have a monopoly?" Graham pressed. "It certainly doesn't feel that way to me," Zuckerberg replied, sounding disappointed.

Dick Durbin seemed intent on dramatically making a point about privacy. Zuckerberg was genuinely flustered when the Illinois Democrat asked, "Would you be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?"

"No," Zuckerberg finally answered, much to the disappointment of social media groupies.

John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked about the company's former mantra, "Move fast and break things," which Zuckerberg wisely informed him was no longer in use. He also assured Cornyn that the data of the company's customers was safe. "The common misconception is that we sell data to advertisers," Zuckerberg said. "We do not sell data to advertisers."

"You clearly rent it," Cornyn riposted.

At that point, more than two hours into the hearing, Zuckerberg was offered a break. As if to show off his youthful, 33-year-old vigor, he demurred, enthusing, "We can keep going! Maybe 15 more minutes."

He should have taken them up on the offer, since the next questioner, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), was openly hostile, accusing the company of being "heedless and reckless." As Zuckerberg began protesting, Blumenthal dismissed him. "We've seen the apology tours before," he said sarcastically, as his aides held up a sign displaying samples of Zuckerberg's previous mea culpas. You have to admire a politician who takes the trouble to show up equipped with visual aids.

But Blumenthal was shortly outdone by Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who oozed contempt when he laid a trap for Zuckerberg. "Does Facebook consider itself a neutral public forum?" he asked. "Or are you engaged in political speech?" Cruz proceeded to accuse the company of "a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship" and "suppressing conservative stories." As an example, he cited Facebook having shut down the "Chick-fil-A appreciation page." (Shocked as I am to admit it, I actually agree with Ted Cruz, for the first time ever. Because, as everyone knows, Chick-fil-A is simply delicious.)

Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pursued the notion that Facebook exploits the information that people share on the site. "It doesn't seem like we own our data, otherwise we'd be getting a cut," he said jokingly. During his allotted time, Schatz repeatedly referred to the movie Black Panther, which must have made the folks at Disney happy. God knows, that movie needs a plug.

Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) complimented Zuckerberg on his company's meteoric rise, asking him to confirm that such a success story could only have occurred in America and not, say, in China. When Zuckerberg demurred, saying that there are some impressive Chinese internet companies, Sullivan seemed annoyed at his lack of patriotism. "You're supposed to answer yes to this question," he said impatiently, partly joking. 

Zuckerberg repeatedly defended the company's practice of tailoring ads to users' preferences based on their personal information. "Although people don't like ads, people really don't like ads that aren't relevant," he pointed out. 

Although a few Republican senators made clear that they weren't in favor of "overregulating" Facebook (Orrin Hatch and Roger Wicker, I'm talking about you), it was clear that the committee had lost patience with the company's missteps and abuse of its privileges. There's clearly a reckoning coming, and Zuckerberg seemed incapable of turning the tide. All his promises that Facebook would work harder to preserve its users' information sounded hollow and insufficient. It seems that there actually is a downside to the concept of completely unfettered and free communication. Increased regulation seems utterly necessary. And even more important, people need to learn to keep some things to themselves. And instead of getting their news from God knows where on the internet, perhaps they could start reading the failing New York Times or the failing Washington Post