House lawmakers emphasized Wednesday something that already seemed abundantly clear: Mark Zuckerberg is not popular in Washington D.C. As the Facebook CEO faces numerous governmental investigations and questions over whether his company should be broken up, Zuckerberg made his way to Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify before the House Financial Services Committee. And while the hearing was technically focused on Libra, Facebook’s planned cryptocurrency, members of Congress fully embraced the opportunity to grill Zuckerberg over Facebook’s full range of missteps and criticisms, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the recent announcement that the company will not prohibit political ads that are false or misleading. “Perhaps you believe you are above the law,” committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters said in her opening statement to Zuckerberg. “It appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and are willing to step on or over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, your own users, and even our democracy to get what you want.”
One of the six-hour-long testimony’s most testy exchanges was with progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who asked Zuckerberg when he knew about the Cambridge Analytica scandal before pivoting to the question of misinformation in political ads. Telling Zuckerberg that she “just want[s] to know how far I can push this in the next year,” Ocasio-Cortez asked whether she could “pay to target predominantly black zipcodes and advertise them the incorrect election date?” The CEO said she could not, because Facebook prohibits information “that is calling for violence, or could risk imminent physical harm, or voter or census suppression.” Ocasio-Cortez then went one step further and asked if she could “run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal.” “I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here, what’s fair game,” Ocasio-Cortez added. Zuckerberg told Ocasio-Cortez she could “probably” run such an ad, prompting Ocasio-Cortez to ask if Zuckerberg “see[s] a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements.” “Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad,” Zuckerberg responded. “That’s different from it being—in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.” “So you won’t take down lies, or you will take down lies? I think that’s a pretty simple yes or no” Ocasio-Cortez asked. “In most cases, in a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves,” Zuckerberg responded.
The New York congresswoman then used her remaining time to flag Zuckerberg and Facebook’s apparent associations with the far-right. “In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of who advance the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss so-called social media bias against conservatives, and do you believe there is a bias?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg, referencing recent reports that the CEO is holding listening sessions with conservative figures. “Uh congresswoman, um, sorry I don’t remember everything that’s in the sentence,” Zuckerberg, caught off-guard, responded. “That’s alright, I’ll move on,” Ocasio-Cortez said, going on to ask Zuckerberg to explain “why you label the Daily Caller, a publication well-documented with ties to white supremacists, as an official fact checker for Facebook?” When Zuckerberg responded that Facebook’s fact checkers are appointed through an independent fact checking network “that has a rigorous standard for who they allow,” Ocasio-Cortez finished her line of questioning with a final, pointed question as she turned off her microphone: “So you would say that white supremacist-tied publications meet a rigorous standard for fact-checking?”
Ocasio-Cortez was far from the only House lawmaker to be unrelenting in their questioning of Zuckerberg. In recent “destructive” political fights around the world, Rep. Gregory Meeks pointed out to Zuckerberg, “Facebook has been systemically found at the scene of the crime. Do you think that’s just a coincidence?” Rep. Katie Porter sharply criticized Zuckerberg for the reportedly dire working conditions for Facebook’s content moderators, and asked him whether he would “be willing to commit to spending one hour a day for the next year, watching these videos and acting as a content monitor and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?” When Zuckerberg responded, “I’m not sure that would serve our community for me to spend my time,” Porter dismissed his evasiveness, saying, “What you’re saying is you’re not willing to do it.” Rep. Joyce Beatty, who serves as the vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, used her testimony to forcefully admonish Zuckerberg for Facebook’s lack of diversity and seemingly casual attitude toward civil rights. “Your work with civil rights work is because it’s a result of the number of lawsuits that you’ve had,” Beatty told Zuckerberg. The CEO was unable to answer Beatty’s questions about the company’s diversity initiatives, prompting the congresswoman to directly attack Zuckerberg for his lack of knowledge and preparation on the topic. “It’s almost like you think this is a joke when you’ve ruined the lives of many people by discriminating against them,” Beatty told Zuckerberg. “Maybe you just don’t read a lot of things that have to do with civil rights and African-Americans.”
Wednesday’s hearing was largely marked by this airing of grievances over Facebook’s failings, as Libra still remains in the early enough stages that Zuckerberg spoke mostly in hypotheticals and was unable to provide many concrete details. When Rep. Ayanna Pressley asked whether it’s free to use the Calibra wallet, for instance, Zuckerberg prefaced his answer by specifying that “the service is not available today,” and it will be free only “assuming that we’re able to launch it.” Zuckerberg maintained his confidence in Libra, telling Pressley that he’d feel comfortable leaving his children an inheritance in the cryptocurrency, but also acknowledged that “it’s a risky project” and attempted to distance Facebook from Libra, emphasizing that Libra is ostensibly being run by an independent Libra Association. “We might be required to pull out if the Association independently decides to move forward on something that we’re not comfortable with,” Zuckerberg said. (Lawmakers remained skeptical about this, with Pressley telling the CEO, “Mr. Zuckerberg, Libra is Facebook, and Facebook is you.”) Ultimately, while Zuckerberg’s spot in the congressional hot seat might have given lawmakers the opportunity to challenge the CEO to his face, it seems to have done little to assuage fears about the potential global currency—or answer the myriad questions that still remain about its implementation. “Clocking in at over six hours, it’s not a brief hearing,” Ranking Member Patrick McHenry said in his closing statement. “We’ve covered, I think, the full range of topics…and, frankly, I’m not sure if we’ve learned anything new here.”
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