By the time lawmakers were openly asking Mark Zuckerberg to make their state’s internet faster or telling him how much their kids love Instagram, the damage had already been done: Mark Zuckerberg had been owned. Looking less like a titan of industry than an agoraphobic giving a TED Talk, Zuckerberg submitted himself to fear-mongering questions about user data, Cambridge Analytica, online censorship, and Russian interference in the 2016 election during a pair of hearings in front of the Senate and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The hearings were dramatic and, in their own way, a gripping bit of television. We laughed when we found out he had to use a booster seat because of course he did, and we laughed when we saw a photo of his notes on Reddit, because of course that happened too. We cringed as he also had to answer no less than seven questions about whether or not Facebook had intentionally censored conservative vloggers Diamond and Silk. Most importantly, though, we couldn’t help but be transfixed as Zuckerberg was forced to detail the way things we take for granted as young people who use the internet are actually quite sinister, when viewed through the lens of a Congressional hearing.
Though they may be movers and shakers on the Hill, the Senators and House members who lobbed questions at Zuckerberg are, in essence, subject to the same power imbalance as we are when they log onto Facebook — and perhaps even more so, given the lack of internet literacy that many of them displayed with their questions. That Zuckerberg was made to explain very basic things about how his multi-billion-dollar social media platform worked to these elected officials was in its own way an ignominy, the same as if you or I were at a party and had to take a call from our dad who needed help finding where the WiFi password was printed on the router.
Still, they fulfilled their roles as our elected representatives in a way that rarely actually happens in America, giving Zuckerberg a piece of their constituents’ minds — even if many of their questions were nonsensical or completely unrelated to the issue of whether Facebook improperly gave user data to Cambridge Analytica. It felt like the tables had been turned, with the man who holds the world’s secrets suddenly legally bound to tell his — or at least tell the truth, or at least not lie while being evasive as possible. He looked uncomfortable. We were able to mock him. We finally got a chance to sift through his trash.
In his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the British journalist Jon Ronson dug up the following bit of history while discussing the dethroning of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who was revealed by journalist Michael Moynihan to have been a serial plagiarist:
A book of Delaware laws I discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society revealed that if [a person] had been found guilty of ‘lying or publishing false news’ in the 1800s, he would have been ‘fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes.’ If the judge had chosen a whipping, local newspapers would have published a digest detailing the amount of squirming that had occurred. [...] If [the] whipper had been deemed to have not whipped hard enough, the reviews would have been scathing.
Switch a few of the nouns around, and you get essentially what happened to Zuck this week. The booster seat and the camera trained upon his blank, terrified face functioned as the stocks, each hearing a whipping and each question a lash. Though the point of the hearings were to hold Zuckerberg and the tech industry at large to account for abuse of customer trust, from a viewer’s perspective, their actual content ultimately seemed less important than the fact that a visibly uncomfortable Zuckerberg had to sit there and provide answers.
While speaking with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the second day of hearings, Zuckerberg seemed largely unfamiliar with the details of much of Facebook’s business operations; in exchanges with seven different representatives from both sides of the political divide, he responded to tough questions with some variation of, “I’m not familiar with that.” While it’s possible that Zuckerberg, as the head of an enterprise that employs tens of thousands of people, was genuinely unfamiliar with the day-to-day workings of Facebook, this may have been a strategy on his part — as TechCrunch pointed out, though he was not technically under oath, lying to Congress is still a crime.
After the publication of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson would tweet a startling insight while comparing Lehrer to another person featured in the book: “I believe our shame-worthiness often lies in the space between who we are and how we present ourselves to the world.” If we accept Ronson’s premise, then our renewed zest for public shaming is itself is a side-effect of social media culture — collective outrage at the discovery that one’s public and private selves are incongruous. And if this is the case, then Zuckerberg is one of the architects of modern shame. After all, Facebook and its sister service Instagram are two of the chief tools that we use to create the distance of which Ronson speaks — broadcasting our successes while shrouding our failures, dreading the moment that this dissonance is discovered. The wealth generated by these social networks has effectively rendered Zuckerberg’s private life from ever being exploited or even truly understood — after all, we’re talking about someone with access to the best public relations teams that money can buy and a personal security force worthy of the head of a nation-state.
But as he sat in his booster seat, struggling to foreground Facebook’s positive contributions to the world while avoiding disclosing its more sinister elements without technically lying, Zuckerberg was forced to feel the same discomfort that plagues our everyday lives. Perhaps our glee at watching Zuck squirm is undergirded by a subliminal hope that now that he has felt an IRL version of the same gap that his services subject us to, he will feel a bit more empathy for the rest of us. Given that Facebook’s stock jumped skyward in the hours after Zuckerberg’s testimony on Tuesday, it seems that, to far too many people, this hope was enough.