HuffPost reached out to policy, media and tech experts and one congressman who questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to get their reactions to Zuckerberg’s two days of congressional testimony.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). Sarbanes asked Zuckerberg to explain how Facebook embeds its employees in political campaigns and what kind of help the social media giant provides to those campaigns. This is why he pursued those questions:
“It all goes to the broader issue of Facebook’s ability, because it is such an important commodity in the communications space, to offer up benefits to clients, including political clients ― including potentially sitting elected lawmakers, who are the very ones who are going to need to turn around, step back, look at arm’s length and decide whether there needs to be some regulation of this entity. So you’re right back to the issue of whether special interests or powerful interests out there are in a position to lean on the gears of the system in a way that can get them special treatment when it comes to public policy.”
What he hopes to find out:
“I’m very interested to know how does this work. Is an embedded Facebook employee sitting next to the chief information officer or the digital tech supervisor of the campaign ― sitting right next to them as they run into problems getting ads approved according to the Facebook requirements and so forth? Can the campaign person turn to that employee next to them and say, ‘Can you help me out? What do we do here?’ And did that result in this real imbalance ― huge imbalance ― in the number of Facebook ads placed for the Trump campaign on the Facebook platform compared with the Clinton campaign. That can obviously tie back to how much each campaign was willing to purchase on the platform. But the approval process for ads can take some turnaround time. And if you have an embedded employee sitting there next to you, you might be able to get that fast-tracked. We don’t know, but these are some of the questions that need to be asked.”
Whether he thought Zuckerberg’s response was adequate:
“Not really. I mean, he didn’t really have much time to do it because we were limited to four minutes, in part because Facebook negotiated that with the committee. So if we’d have more time, each of us, to pose our questions, he would have had more time to answer them. But obviously some of the things I was asking for were not things that could be provided in the moment but are things we’re going to follow up on and try to get in the coming days.”
And his concerns about Congress’ response:
“I’m very concerned that once the kind of theater of the last two days is behind us, and other events ― and certainly there’s other events these days ― kind of push the Zuckerberg hearings and these latest breaches at Facebook off the front page, that all of these assurances from Zuckerberg about being willing to embrace appropriate regulation and things of that nature will suddenly evaporate. He was quite careful as he ‘endorsed’ the Honest Ads Act ― or endorsed certain regulation in terms of their privacy practices. It’s always, ‘Obviously we want to see the details, but in concept we agree with that.’ Well, to me that’s sort of code for future resistance.”
Filip Struhárik, editor at the Slovakian news outlet Denník N. At the end of 2017, Facebook tested splitting users’ news feeds in two ― posts from family and friends vs. everything else ― in six countries including Slovakia. The test was a disaster that radically disrupted entire news ecosystems in those countries. It also demonstrated the extreme power Facebook has over smaller nations that don’t have as much history with a free press and democratic elections as the U.S. Struhárik helped bring attention to how Facebook’s experiment affected his organization. He emailed his reaction to Zuckerberg’s testimony:
“Mark Zuckerberg said a lot during last weeks and we are monitoring his plans, but it remains unclear what will be launched just in U.S. and what will be ready globally too. Let’s look on one particular topic ― promised greater political-ads transparency. It raises a lot of questions. Is it something we can expect in small countries too? This is an important question, because we will have two elections (regional and presidential) in Slovakia during next 12 months. Will Slovak advertisers need to confirm their identity and location if they want to run political ad? We still don’t know how will Facebook find out what is political ad and what is not. If the new rules will apply just to official political campaign, the situation does not improve, because there are many other (bad) actors. The new rules would have to apply for all who want to run any kind of political ads. But even after all already has been said, we don’t know important details. So we are waiting for specifications.”
Matt Stoller, fellow at the Open Markets Institute. Stoller and the Open Markets Institute advocate for stronger antitrust enforcement against corporations, including digital platforms like Facebook and Google. This is his reaction to Zuckerberg’s testimony:
“I take two things from these hearings. First, this was the Big Bang of Silicon Valley politics, with a host of important issues coming to light that will be debated and worked through for years. Already the consequences are rolling through. To take one example, Facebook rolled out a new data targeting policy to advertisers as Zuckerberg was testifying. To take another, Federal Trade Commission nominee Rebecca Kelly Slaughter had a nominating hearing at the very same time as Zuckerberg’s appearance before the House. She will soon be one of five new nominees at the commission that regulates Facebook. She took multiple questions from Republican and Democratic senators on the Facebook data and monopoly problem, which is a signal that the Senate expects action from the FTC.
“Second, the problem with Facebook is its market power. The problem in a nutshell is that [it’s as if] Facebook owns the phone network, but listens to what everyone says and manipulates them based on what it hears to serve Facebook’s interest. Facebook has locked in two billion users into its essential communications services, along with millions of content producers. It uses this position to engage in surveillance and manipulation of the flow of information among these people and institutions. It then sells the ability to manipulate these people to advertisers and has built a host of tools to allow those advertisers to engage in discrimination on who sees their ads. Fundamentally, most of the harmful symptoms that emerge from Facebook ― from its rampant privacy violations to fomenting ethnic hatred and genocide to content discrimination ― are a function of its misuse of its market power over an essential communications service.
“There are a number of ways to make Facebook safe for democracy. But fundamentally, we must break the company’s power by splitting off its various social networks (Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook), ending its ability to discriminate and spy on its users, and forcing competition into the market. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) summed up the two days of testimony best with her statement on the problem with Facebook. She said, ‘In the end, Americans do not like to be manipulated.’”
Laura Moy, deputy director at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. Moy is an expert on technology issues ranging from digital privacy to government surveillance, copyright and net neutrality. She said this stood out to her in Zuckerberg’s testimony:
“It’s inevitable that Facebook will be harnessed for ill purposes, such as to advance hate speech, false news, or deceptive political ads. That’s because the platform is designed to make it easy and cheap for anyone to target their message — whatever it is — to users who are likely to engage with that message. In other words, it’s an efficient tool for evil as well as for good. And Zuckerberg’s answers on this issue just weren’t good enough.
“When asked about hate speech on Facebook, time and time again Mark Zuckerberg responded that the platform is hoping to use artificial intelligence to automatically identify problematic content and flag it for removal, but also repeatedly acknowledged that hateful language is ‘nuanced’ and artificial intelligence isn’t yet able to reliably do that, so they have to hire humans to review content.
“In fact, a lot of experts believe that artificial intelligence will never be good enough to reliably identify problematic content. What if that’s the case? How will Facebook sufficiently prevent its platform from being captured by those who would use it to harm others? These hearings didn’t sufficiently answer that question.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation. Howard is a former tech reporter, including at HuffPost, who now helps run the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation. The nonprofit is pushing the Honest Ads Act, which would require digital platforms to provide greater transparency around political ads. This is Howard’s takeaway from Zuckerberg’s testimony:
“First, I’d note that [while] Facebook has endorsed our bill, Zuckerberg’s claim that they are implementing it is questionable. The definition of electioneering should be expanded to digital platforms and a level playing field for transparency and accountability should be mandated. Self-regulation is not enough: Facebook could have raised the bar on transparency many years ago, instead of lobbying against legislation or regulation.
“Second, the breadth of questions posed showed the many different ways that the rise, power and influence of Facebook implicates different aspects of American society, but the short time that members of Congress had to pose them and the lack of understanding that senators demonstrated did not deliver effective oversight nor, with notable exceptions, significantly improve public understanding. Lawmakers need to grasp the complex technology and policy issues presented by entities like Facebook to effectively enact the changes in laws and institutions that President Jefferson once said ‘must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.’
“As we pointed out, the public has now been reminded of how well many U.S. senators understand Facebook, privacy and technology ― or not. If we want better policy and strong oversight, we need to make Congress smarter. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment could help, but it’s not sufficient. Abysmal trust in Congress requires the institution to create a better hearing process that ensures informed questions ― and, critically, follow-up questions ― are posed to industrial and post-industrial titans called to account for how they’re protecting consumers and democracy itself. The apparent lack of coordination or follow-up between the Senate and House hearings or to the questions of other members failed the public.
“Finally, the problems that exist with Facebook existed before these hearings and will persist when they are done. Zuckerberg repeatedly said that he’s open to regulation but was rarely held to account on exactly what that should mean or when, deferring instead to follow up with staff or work with Congress. The devil is always in the details. Unless Congress takes more time to understand and then to craft careful remedies, the emerging challenges for open government that Facebook is implicated in ― from automated activity to algorithmic transparency to public speech on private platforms to data ethics and protections to antitrust concerns to artificial intelligence ― will most likely be obscured by more sound and fury emanating from Washington that ultimately signifies nothing.”