n early April, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was getting ready to come to Washington to apologize, but first he had to make an apology. This warm-up apology was made to civil-rights activists in Myanmar, who are trying to stop murderous attacks against Rohingya Muslims. After the activists complained that Facebook encouraged the violence by allowing the publication of incendiary messages on its platform, Zuckerberg sent them a personal email. He and Facebook, he said, would make things right by monitoring the situation more carefully. He was sorry. Another day, another apology.
This is life for Mark Zuckerberg these days: one damn apology after another. He’s like a waiter spinning his way through an overcrowded room balancing a tray of drinks: Sorry, ‘scuse me, sorry, whoops, oh sh–, so sorry, won’t happen again, sorry… Indeed, this is the way things have been for Zuckerberg for a long time now. By the time he arrived in Washington to testify before Congress, tech writers for Fast Company, Wired, and other outlets had helpfully gathered compendiums of the many regrets issued during “Zuckerberg’s 14-Year Apology Tour.”
I can hear you say, incredulous, 14 years? He must have started the tour when he was two and a half. Zuckerberg’s youthful looks—his face, which has the aspect of a Roman emperor’s marble bust, is as unlined as an egg—can be deceptive: He is 34, in fact, and it’s been 14 years since he founded a forerunner of Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard. And no sooner had he founded it than he began apologizing for it. Facemash allowed Harvard students to rate one another’s looks online, and Zuckerberg had to take down the site after half an hour, so instantaneous and intense was the outrage. An open letter to the campus followed: “I apologize for any harm done as a result of my neglect…”
That first apology was for an act of colossal bad taste. Since then, as Facebook piled up users by the tens and then hundreds of millions, Zuckerberg’s apologies have tended to revolve around the issue of privacy. The irony is hard to miss. How can customers get touchy about their privacy on a free service they joined precisely so they could shimmy and gyrate and expose details of their personal lives in front of people they may or may not know? I’ve never posted anything to my Facebook account, but I checked recently and found that over the years I have approved 700 friends, only a handful of whom are friends in the old, pre-Facebook sense of the term. To judge by their posts, many of my Facebook not-really-friends seem to have forgotten the difference.
In 2006, some users thought an early version of its News Feed showed that Facebook was sharing their personal information without permission. “That was a big mistake and I’m sorry for it,” said Zuckerberg. A year later, Facebook introduced a feature called Beacon, with the same disgorgement of private data. “I apologize for it,” he said. Three years later, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook was exposing user IDs to advertisers, and Zuckerberg wrote an apologetic op-ed in the Washington Post. He posted a kind of catch-all apology to users a year later.
And then, starting with the 2016 election, came the calamities that brought Zuckerberg to apologize before Congress: the “fake news” stories that flooded Facebook from bogus Russian accounts, followed by the revelation that a British firm, Cambridge Analytica, had acquired the data of 50 million—no, wait, that’s 70 million—no, it looks like 87 million Facebook users. (By the time you read this, the much-revised number may have been upped again.) Most unforgivable of all, the data were made available to the Trump campaign.
So Zuckerberg came to Washington to face his inquisitors, sitting as erect as a schoolboy outside the principal’s office. “I’m sorry,” he said, as if for the first time. By now it’s clear that for Zuckerberg, architect of a virtual world, apologies are virtual, too: simulacra of regret, a social nicety used to buy time until the next apology becomes unavoidable. In a happy coincidence, this is how apologies work in Washington, too.
The capital, after all, is where the passive construction “mistakes were made” was first fashioned and where wised-up professionals use the phrase “non-apology apology” without queasiness or irony. The virtual apology fits with the metaphysical assumption that underlies most government policymaking: There are no trade-offs in the world of the Washington imagination. It is a world where we can tighten business regulation without squeezing business, or cut taxes without losing revenue, or raise the costs of employment without costing jobs. Surely in such an environment, Zuckerberg can apologize for making a mistake without being required to stop making it.
In his endless grilling by the superannuated windbags of Capitol Hill—on his first day of testimony, the combined age of his first four questioners was 303—Zuckerberg said he was in favor of some kind of regulation of social media, including Facebook. Some dewy-eyed innocents were taken aback by this willingness to kneel before the federal government. But quite apart from the ill will created by the privacy and Russia scandals, Zuckerberg came to Washington at an awkward moment for his company—awkward enough to see whether the government can freeze the status quo for Facebook before things get worse.
There is some evidence that Facebook, while still hugely profitable, is reaching saturation levels. Meanwhile, social scientists are compiling evidence, such as it is, that Facebook use is addictive, socially retarding, or otherwise harmful to the commonweal. It is an article of faith in conservative and Republican circles that Facebook is run by left-wing partisans who narrow the reach and suppress the speech of voices from the political and cultural right. Left-wingers assume with equal vigor that Facebook’s tolerance of fake news threw the election to Donald Trump.
The company has made powerful enemies. With the rise of Facebook, big media companies retooled the way they disseminated news to take advantage of an audience that was seemingly limitless and endlessly targetable. And then last year Facebook announced it would pass along fewer new articles to fewer users, narrowing the online audience that media companies had just begun to monetize. You don’t see many puff pieces about Facebook in the mainstream press anymore. But you do see a lot of editorials insisting the company be reined in, somehow.
Editorials like these sound like they’re written by people who have never heard the phrase “regulatory capture.” It is a commonplace that mature businesses, seeing fewer options for growth, seek stability and often find it in the regulatory protection of the federal government. Any set of regulations agreeable to Zuckerberg would likely preserve Facebook’s dominance in its many markets. One proposal—that any fake news story found on social media be identified and pulled down within 72 hours—would require the kind of manpower and artificial-intelligence algorithms that only Facebook could afford, putting competitors at a disadvantage. Expanding the Federal Trade Commission’s policing powers would extend to smaller rivals the same close scrutiny that Facebook already draws.
By inviting regulation, of course, Zuckerberg takes a gamble. He runs the risk that he won’t be able to manipulate the rules and red tape as he hopes. Having alienated both liberals and conservatives, Facebook lacks an obvious political protector. The hearings revealed that the source of much of the anti-Facebook hostility isn’t so much that the company manipulates private information but that it makes money doing so. In 2020, a new administration less friendly to the idea of profit could be in power, and Facebook would find its new federal friend much less cooperative. Whichever way Zuckerberg’s gamble turns out, one thing is certain: He’ll be sorry.