Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington (Again)

27 10 19

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I haven’t watched a Congressional hearing in awhile. Partly because of other work commitments but mostly because they’ve increasingly felt less like Congress doing the people’s business and more like a Circus produced at the American Taxpayer’s expense. The more that Republican electeds used these hearings to amplify conspiracy theories, and extremist figures, the less useful information could be gleaned from them. Additionally, covering them here or on Twitter, even just to point out the absurdity, meant amplifying extremist and conspiracy content so I stopped. 

But on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Financial Services Committee about Libra, Facebook’s attempt at cryptocurrency. As this was Zuckerberg’s first appearance before Congress since April 2018, I decided this was probably a hearing worth watching.

Last time Zuckerberg came to Congress, members and Senators were mocked, especially by tech press, for their lack of understanding of tech issues and policy. Today’s hearing was a massive improvement, from both parties. Instead of asking Zuckerberg to explain how Facebook worked (giving him ample time to filibuster in the process) members of the committee subjected Zuckerberg to more than six hours of questioning.

Most of the questions asked boiled down to a variation on the same theme: Facebook has failed it’s users too many times to count. Why on earth should America trust you with a monetary system? Zuckerberg was challenged on his claim Libra would benefit the “underbanked”, on the company’s disinformation and political content policies, on their repeated Civil Right violations and their failure to adequately address them, on labor issues with their content moderators, and if a member of the America Nazi Party running for office would be considered a politician able to post content that violated Facebook’s Terms of Service. 

Cryptocurrency is not my area of expertise but the story was still familiar. Zuckerberg claims that Libra will be a great equalizer, a tool that makes life better for users across the globe especially those who don’t have access to banking. But we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. Facebook’s record of failing to protect the vast majority of its users from hate, harassment, and harm, is already abysmal. Libra seems destined to be more of the same putting Facebook’s most vulnerable users and their financial resources at risk. 

It was refreshing to see that Congress had done its homework. Facebook and other tech companies have created a host of problems in America, problems they’re not up to the task of fixing alone. Congresspeople are generally smart and their policy staffers even smarter, but a year ago I felt the knowledge gaps might be insurmountable. We need our elected officials to understand these issues forward and backward. Congress isn’t there yet but members have clearly made some progress since the last time Zuckerberg came to town.

Meanwhile, on Friday Facebook reminded us, yet again, why we can’t trust any information published on Facebook. In addition to allowing politicians to run ads with disinformation, fact-checking programs that include a publication friendly to White Supremacists, and taking down an accurate fact check on abortion after political pressure from the right, Facebook has introduced a news tab with “verified” media outlets. One of those “verified” news outlets is the far-right propaganda outlet Breitbart.


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