Zuckerberg Theater on Capitol Hill
Last week, the Senate and the House grilled Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s use of data. Maybe someone else should have been on the hot seat, too. This past week saw the most-anticipated theatrical performance in Washington in years, and I’m not talking about “Hamilton” coming to the Kennedy Center in a few months. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress was two days of what is sometimes called “political theater;” or, gestures and actions designed to give people the feeling that “something” is being done about a problem without actually doing anything about it. The problem is the outsized influence of Facebook on American life and culture. What started as concern over Russia’s use of Facebook to influence the 2016 elections has turned into what one writer called “moral panic over the impact of tech on our wellbeing.” Among the reasons I count Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill as mere theater is that he wasn’t the only person who should have been testifying. If we are truly concerned about technology’s impact on our wellbeing, we should question ourselves. Let me be clear: I’m not defending Zuckerberg’s or any other tech executive’s actions. There’s plenty to criticize. In his testimony, Zuckerberg was either in denial or disingenuous about the huge role his company plays in our culture. While, he’d have us believe that Facebook is merely a platform that enables people to “connect,” anyone who has used Facebook for more than five minutes should know that just isn’t true. Facebook anticipates what it thinks you want to see and gives you plenty of it. It filters out what it thinks you don’t want to see. To use a fancy word, it “curates” our news and other information. In fact, we’d be hard pressed to think of anything that has more powerfully shaped our culture than Zuckerberg’s college creation. It’s certainly been more powerful than the Congress questioning it last week. Think about it: What else in the last decade has more powerfully shaped how Americans do relationships, get their news, spend their money, use their leisure time, determine their political positions, and for too many, get their theology than Facebook? But, even more insane is that people are doing this voluntarily. Blaming Facebook for allegedly misleading Americans about what was going on during the 2016 elections is a way of avoiding personal responsibility for our choices about how and where we get our news. And the idea that Congress can somehow “fix” this by regulation? Not if we are our own captors. From the start, people like media theorist Douglas Rushkoff have told us that, “We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.” Specifically, they are selling information about us to advertisers. And we are all too willing to share that information, not only with Facebook, but with the world. Facebook and other social media platforms are more than tools to use, they are worlds we live in. Of course, Facebook could make the controls over what information is shared a lot simpler to manage. But, it’s equally true that most people wouldn’t bother to use them. In the end, very little, if anything, of substance will come out of Zuckerberg’s limited engagement on Capitol Hill. As the New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily” noted, Zuckerberg faced some tough questions—especially from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but the damage done to the company was minimal. In fact, Facebook stock went up 4.5 percent when the congressional play began. Some will stop using Facebook out of privacy concerns, and others will dramatically change how they use it and what they share. But a million federal regulations later, Facebook will still be more powerful in shaping culture than the Congress who imposed them. And many of us will continue to be willing participants. To paraphrase a line from a master of theater, the fault, dear listener, lies not in Facebook, but in ourselves.