Mark Zuckerberg never calls me for advice. But he should. I would tell him to fire his entire communications and lobbying staff. They are incompetent. They have only made matters worse for the company. Did no one think to brief Zuckerberg on the two or three obvious lines of questioning he would face? If they couldn’t prepare him, they never should have let him sit there.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018).
It was an astounding moment in American corporate history. A CEO of one of the world’s most powerful companies sat dumbfounded, stammering, unable to address predictable questions from a member of Congress who is well known to be as prepared and relentless in her interrogations as any politician in America.
“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here—what’s fair game?” asked US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a hearing of the House Banking Committee last week.
“Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, I think probably,” replied Mark Zuckerberg, trying his best to explain what has been one of the most confusing and controversial of a series of new Facebook changes this year.
“You don’t know if I’ll be able to do that?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“I think probably,” Zuckerberg said.
It got worse from there. The hearing was supposed to be about Libra, Facebook’s ill-fated plan to offer a global financial transfer and transaction systems backed up by an independent cryptocurrency.
By placing Zuckerberg at that table, before all those cameras, yet again, Facebook basically asked to have its CEO schooled on a completely different matter by a much smarter person.
Libra has been mired in confusion, largely because Facebook, for all its engineering talent, can’t seem to convey a clear message. There is a lot of potential virtue in Libra. But you wouldn’t know it from the commentary.
If Libra fails to launch, which seems likely, it will be because Facebook took the lead in pushing it, not because it was a bad idea in the first place. Had it been a PayPal, Visa, or Mastercard initiative that Facebook partnered with, the public debate about it might have been about its costs and benefits rather than about Facebook and everything else the company has done wrong.
Facebook’s reputation is so soiled, its public trust so eroded by more than three years of revelations of its excesses, carelessness, and hubris, that it can’t get a break even when company leaders are trying to make a solid argument.
If Zuckerberg had called me back in 2017, I would have told him to lay low for 24 to 36 months. He should bluntly acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Facebook’s contribution to genocide in Myanmar. But don’t roll out any big projects like Libra. Don’t “pivot” publicly to privacy or anything else you don’t really believe in and expose yourself to ridicule. Don’t give major speeches about things you don’t understand. Just be cool.
Facebook could have spent the past two years quietly building up its security, content moderation, and fused messaging systems without bombast or delusions of grandeur. Reporters would have caught on to these developments and reported them soberly and critically.
Had Facebook shut up, the overall story would have been one of modesty and competence (or at least Facebook would have been granted the benefit of the doubt about competence given a decade of glowing press coverage that preceded 2017). Instead, the story has been an unrelenting barrage of chaos, arrogance, panic, overreaction, defensiveness, and even the occasional act of vengeance against critics—an act that seemed to carry the echoes of antisemitism.
Rather than have its vice president (and failed UK politician) Nick Clegg issue a confusing announcement about fact-checking politicians, Facebook could have answered reporters’ questions as they came in. The company could have remained disciplined and taken some hits.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/mark-zuckerberg-needs-to-shut-up