He knows. He knows people loathe him. He knows and doesn’t care, until he’s forced to look like he cares.
They made a movie about his life, The Social Network. It portrayed him as a nerdy tech guy driven by a need to connect with women. As if. It wasn’t unkind, though. It ended with the Beatles singing Baby, You’re a Rich Man. True, that. The youngest billionaire.
He knows they mock him. On Saturday Night Live last weekend, Alex Moffat played Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and chief executive, as a stiff weirdo, robotic in his movements, reluctant to make eye contact and given to bursts of inappropriate laughter. “Poke! Poke! Remember that feature?” Moffat asked as he poked Colin Jost in the shoulder. “Poke! It was flirting for cowards!”
His character on SNL laughed when asked if, you know, Facebook users should have control over their own data. “Sheesh, no! Because it’s mine. You gave it to me. No backsies.”
He knows it means they think he’s a man-boy: Ice-cold, arrogant and remote. But, whatever. What did he do that’s so wrong? “Making the world more open and connected,” that’s what he did. He knows he’s disliked, but they’re all addicted to Facebook. So he wins.
Then came the Cambridge Analytica scandal, whereby third-party apps scraped data of more than 80 million users on behalf of a consultancy firm that worked with the Donald Trump campaign. Without the users’ knowledge. An embarrassing breach, an embarrassing glimpse behind the curtain of Facebook’s business operation. When it was pointed out that Russian trolls had used Facebook to meddle in the U.S. election in 2016, it was possible for him to say, “Hey, guys, look what happened! Wow. Who knew?” Not now, not when Facebook users are antsy and the stock is losing some value.
So Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Tuesday in front of a U.S. Senate committee to answer questions. Not his thing, this sort of public theatre of inquiry. But he has a strategy: play the callow youth, the guy who was just inventing this Facebook thing in his dorm room not that long ago. Say, “I’ll have my team get back to you.” Also, don’t sweat, and drink a lot of water.
Did it matter, in the end? Not so much, because these politicians are mostly old and ignorant about technology, let alone how social media works. Some questions were nonsensical. No need for Zuckerberg to dredge up lessons from some long-ago lesson in faking humility and charm. Just say, “Senator, that’s a great question!” Mention the dorm room a lot. Assert that Facebook started as an idealistic and optimistic company. When asked if user data might have been improperly transferred to other entities, say some version of, “We’re on it! We’re as shocked as you are and we’re hiring folks to deal with it!” Also, mention the dorm room again.
An hour into his testimony and he looks robotic, a bit unnerved. A senator is asking him about Facebook working with the Trump campaign. Another senator asks him about collecting data on “minors.” He says he doesn’t know, he’s not sure. Yet another senator asks him about subpoenas from the Mueller inquiry investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He says yes, then clarifies, then says, “maybe.” He drinks a lot of water.
He stays calm, though, always pale and stone-faced. He realizes most of these politicians don’t grasp how Facebook operates. He gives them the spin that Facebook merely makes money selling ads. Like old-timey newspapers. They understand that. He says that Facebook will deploy artificial intelligence to find hate speech and other bad things. They probably don’t know what artificial intelligence is!
Senator Ted Cruz accuses Facebook of liberal bias. He stays cool. What’s the guy talking about? What he knows is this: People like Facebook and are foolish and uncaring about what they agree to give Facebook. They don’t want to read long legal agreements. They believe in free speech and so does Facebook. It isn’t his fault if people are foolish about the information they provide.
On CNBC and on Bloomberg TV, they show a live graph of Facebook’s stock, going slightly up, a little bit down and back up again. Second by second. He knows that’s what matters. He knows more about these politicians than their families know; he knows more about you and me than he wants to admit. He’ll only admit that he’s trying to care that we are disturbed by what he knows.