Mark Zuckerberg is no doubt relieved to be finished with his two days of testimony before Congress. He acquitted himself well: no gaffes, no disrespect, and thankfully no flop sweat. On the other hand, several of our elected leaders asked questions that were highly uninformed, or in some cases just plain weird.
Part of the problem is likely their age--many are in their 70s or 80s, prompting some observers to wryly comment that Zuckerberg's testimony reminded them of helping their grandparents with their computers.
Some took to Twitter with merciless joking:
"Mr. Zuckerberg... Hypothetically, if someone's VCR won't stop flashing 12:00, how would you suggest they fix that?" pic.twitter.com/Wq6oA2l0OB-- SPORTZ! (@SportzByRyan) April 10, 2018
"Mr. Zuckerberg, a magazine i recently opened came with a floppy disk offering me 30 free hours of something called America On-Line. Is that the same as Facebook?" pic.twitter.com/U7pqpUhEhQ-- Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) April 10, 2018
The tweets are amusing, but some of the real-life questions that the senators and representatives asked Zuckerberg are just as funny. Here's a sampling:
1. "Is Twitter the same as what you do?"
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R) asked this as he was seeking to discover if Facebook is a monopoly. "It overlaps with a portion of what we do," Zuckerberg said.
2. "If I'm emailing within WhatsApp ... does that inform your advertisers?"
That question came from Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz (D), who seemed unaware that WhatsApp is a chat--not email--platform. Zuckerberg, manfully resisting any temptation to correct him, simply said that content on WhatsApp would not lead to related ads.
3. "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?"
This surprising question came from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R). Zuckerberg blinked for a moment--he couldn't believe it either--and then said simply, "Senator, we run ads."
"I see. That's great." Hatch responded.
4. "What was Facemash, and is it still up and running?"
Missouri Representative Billy Long asked that question, much to Zuckerberg's embarrassment. If you've watched The Social Network, as Long evidently has, you know Facemash was an early Zuckerberg project in which users compared two photos of women and picked who was hotter. But Zuckerberg started Facemash from his dorm room 15 years ago, and Harvard shut it down within days.
5. "What if I don't want to receive [ads for chocolate]?"
Apparently, Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) is fond of a particular type of chocolate, and having mentioned that fact to some Facebook friends, is now seeing ads for that chocolate. His question might be a good one, but it's one for the entire internet, not just Facebook, as anyone who's ever shopped for anything online and been dogged by ads for that same item already knows.
Zuckerberg said that users can turn off third-party information within Facebook if they don't want that info used to select ads for them. But, he added, "even though some people don't like ads, people really don't like ads that aren't relevant."
6. "My son is dedicated to Instagram, so he'd want to be sure I mentioned him while I was here with you."
That loving parental plug came from Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (R). It was a useful reminder that Zuckerberg is the real star in this roomful of powerful elders. And it wasn't the only one.
7. "Would you bring some fiber, because we don't have connectivity?"
West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) made this request--some of her state's rural areas apparently lack broadband. Zuckerberg said there's a group within Facebook bringing connectivity to rural areas, and "we would be happy to follow up with you on that." The following day, several representatives asked if he would bring broadband to their states, too.
8. "Some people refer to [Peter Thiel's startup Palantir] as Stanford Analytica. Do you agree?"
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell (D) posed this odd question on her roundabout way to asking whether Cambridge Analytica's data gathering was the brainchild of a Palantir employee, as recent media reports have said. There's no particular reason to think Zuckerberg would know the answer to either of her questions, and he said he didn't.
9. "Did you know that the Motion Picture Association of America is having problems with piracy and ... this is challenging their existence?"
Georgia Representative Buddy Carter (R) asked this question after first noting the rampant sale of opioids and ivory from endangered elephants over Facebook. Never mind that piracy takes place all over the internet and not just Facebook, or the absurdity of suggesting that it poses an existential threat to the Hollywood movie industry. Zuckerberg merely replied: "Congressman, I believe that has been an issue for a long time."
Some expert observers said after the hearings were done that Congress could have been a lot harder on Zuckerberg if its members were better informed about how social networks and the internet work. If they were, their questions might have been less entertaining. On the other hand, these are the congressional committees charged with overseeing the web and ensuring all our data is safe there. So we all might be better off.