Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday night, 23 October, faced more than six hours of intense grilling from members of the US House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) led a tough line of questioning on Cambridge Analytica, perhaps the biggest data breach scandal to hit the social media giant and one that was intricately linked to the alleged interference into the 2016 US presidential elections.
While the hearing at Capitol Hill by a bipartisan committee was supposed to centre around Libra, Facebook’s proposed crypto-currency, the grilling extended to Facebook’s conduct in general through a wide range of controversies plaguing the company.
Following are the highlights of AOC’s questioning of Zuckerberg:
AOC began her five minutes of question time with Cambridge Analytica, a topic that has come back to haunt Facebook regularly since it broke in April 2018. Drawing an analogy from Facebook’s business model of data mining of user information, she dug into Zuckerberg’s knowledge of the scandal, saying:
“I think you of all people can appreciate using a person’s past behaviour in order to determine, predict or make decisions about people’s future behaviour.”
When Zuckerberg replied saying he didn’t know when exactly the issue was discussed with Facebook board member Peter Thiel, AOC retorted sharply with, “You don’t know? This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company, that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election. You don’t know?”
Her next target was Facebook’s controversial decision to not fact-check speeches by politicians and removing all bars on political candidates lying in their paid advertisements on the platform.
AOC asked,“You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. I just want to know how far I can push this next year. Under your policy, using census data as well, could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes to advertise the wrong election date?”
Zuckerberg replied, “No, Congresswoman, you couldn't.” When press, he elaborated, “If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that can cause- that are calling for violence or could risk imminent physical harm, OR voter or census suppression when we roll out the voter suppression policy, we will take that content down.”
She went on to ask “Could I run ads targeting Republicans in Primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?” to which Zuckerberg replied, “I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, but I think probably.”
With Facebook perennially in the line of fire for allegedly abetting disinformation and its policies to combat its spread, AOC adopted a focused line of grilling on whether Facebook would actually take down content that qualified as lies.
“Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact checking on political advertisements?,” she asked the Facebook CEO.
Zuckerberg, responded “well, Congresswoman I think lying is bad. If you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad.”
The Democrat, the youngest member of the House of Representatives then said that if Facebook was not fact-checking political advertisements, she was just trying to understand the bounds here of what would be ‘fair game’.
“Will you not take down lies or will you take down lies. It’s a pretty simple yes or no. I’m not talking about spin, I’m talking about actual disinformation. So you won’t take them down,” she asked.
To which the Facebook CEO replied with “Congresswoman it depends on the context.”
In her concluding questions, AOC turned her attention to the the problem of white supremacy, an issue that US president Donald Trump has been under intense criticism for – it is alleged that he has been actively abetting and weaponising this ideology for his personal gains.
“In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures some of who advanced the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss the so-called social media bias against conservatives and do you believe there is a bias?” she asked Zuckerberg.
As Zuckerberg fumbled to frame his answer to the question, Ocasio-Cortez moved on to her next and final question in her allotted time.
“Can you explain why you've named the Daily Caller, a publication well documented with ties to white supremacists, as an official fact checker with Facebook?”
Zuckerberg’s response was that Facebook does not pick fact checkers. They are selected by the International Fact Checking Network.