Friday, May 25 , 2018, 2:49 pm | A Few Clouds 65º


Jamie Stiehm: Mark Zuckerberg, Congress Hardly Facing Up to Facebook’s Harm

Mark Zuckerberg had every crisp line memorized on center stage in Washington last week. The nation’s capital desperately needed diversion from the giant white whale about to blow at the White House.

Thanks, I guess, as President Donald Trump circles the ship, the USS Constitution.

“The metamorphosis of young Mark” tour came to us from 1 Hacker Way, the address of his Facebook empire in Menlo Park. (Gives it all away, doesn’t it?) At 33, the billionaire founder and CEO was wearing a sharp suit and tie, letting go of the designer T-shirt he sports back home.

Zuckerberg played the humble Internet emperor giving some 80 members of Congress his full gaze and deference. He prefaced answers with “Senator,” “Congresswoman” or “Congressman.”

He had much to answer for, especially for the 87 million Facebook users whose profiles were swiped by Cambridge Analytica, a fancy name for a dishonest outfit that meddled in the 2016 presidential election for a foreign power. Russian online spies used that data harvest of deception to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.

That’s the dark state of democracy. To that grave point, Zuckerman said that, frankly, Facebook was “slow to identify the Russian misinformation.” An extremely lawyerly understatement.

The Washington Post described his star-powered Senate testimony as “contrite.” Though he said “sorry” a hundred times, Zuckerberg appeared impassive and bulletproof, even under the hardest fire, which came from women: Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

Like a country lawyer, folksy Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., scolded Zuckerberg under the glare of government scrutiny: “Your user agreement sucks!”

The hearings were Zuckerberg’s first spanking in the public square. At the end of two days, he took the dressing down and deftly agreed at every turn that more “regulation” was necessary to harness social media’s power run amok. The Internet is like a vast virtual prairie, a lawless frontier.

Yet stop to remember this. Days after Trump’s surprise win, Zuckerberg professed shock at the idea of shadowy political posts. What a “pretty crazy idea” that “fake news” on Facebook “influenced the election in any way.”

That’s the real Zuckerberg unbound: callow, cocky, not a civic bone in his body, not even two years ago. So much for American democracy.

Lawmakers did not dwell on the harm done by a compromised election; don’t ask me why. (Some fear the white whale.)

Online privacy was the gist of most questions. “Online privacy” sounds quaint, as if there is such a thing. Americans today are so thirsty for community that we surrender “data” to strengthen “weak ties,” a fine field of friends you barely know but would like to meet in another life. That’s the bargain, the user agreement.

Old senators looked curiously at this character, atop an ethereal empire, a fortune in something that can’t be seen or touched, like coal, steel, railroads or oil. A handful bantered to impress Zuckerberg with what they knew about Facebook to keep in touch. It was a bit sad, but they tried to relate over the generational river.

Zuckerberg’s original mission was to create a system for grading Harvard young women against each other, on “hotness,” using photos without permission. Not a very fine foundation in this “#MeToo” era.

The casual T-shirt is almost a disguise for Zuckerberg. Harvard is fine, though he dropped out and never took civics. But he also went to an elite Eastern boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy. He comes from the privileged, ruling-class background of a robber baron.

Here, the fear goes on. The mighty whale is madder than ever since his lawyer’s office was raided. The “constitutional crisis” conversation centers on Trump possibly firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Russian role in the election. (Yes, he questioned Facebook.)

Another alarm bell: The big tax break work of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is done within the Capitol’s alabaster walls, so he’s leaving. The whale knows that’s like handing the House keys to the blue wave of Democrats.

The white whale doesn’t like the blue wave. Thanks for the distraction, Mark. I guess.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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