Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, once the Democrats’ darling prince of Silicon Valley and now one of its chief villains, again faced questions on Capitol Hill about his ambitions for his company. Testifying this week before the House Financial Services Committee about Facebook’s proposed digital currency and payment system, Libra, Zuckerberg instead found himself answering for a far larger number of sins.
The tone of the hearing was set early by Rep. Maxine Waters, who engaged in her signature posturing, saying to Zuckerberg, “Perhaps you believe you are above the law . . . It appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and are willing to step on or over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, your own users, and even our democracy to get what you want.”
She later accused him of abetting voter suppression.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib joined in, asking Zuckerberg about Facebook’s policy of refusing to fact-check political advertisements posted on its platform. “Why should the very politicians who lead our country be held to a lower standard for truthfulness and decency than the average American?” (a good question for Tlaib herself to answer, given her own behavior).
And fellow progressive “Squad” member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to grill Zuckerberg about the fact that he has had dinner with people she disagrees with politically. She asked, “In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of who advance the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss so-called media bias against conservatives, and do you believe there is a bias?” He wisely punted the question.
These are unsettling times for the relationship between Big Tech and lawmakers. Both Republicans and Democrats are calling for more regulation of companies like Facebook, and Democratic presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren are promising to break up the company if elected. (In leaked audio from a meeting of Facebook employees in early October, Zuckerberg called such a threat “existential” and promised to “go to the mat and fight”).
Although the harsh pushback from lawmakers and regulators might suggest a bleak future for Libra (several large organizations such as Stripe, PayPal, and Visa recently announced that they are dropping out of their partnerships with Libra) Zuckerberg appears sanguine about its future, perhaps because he has confidence in the new strategy the company has devised for persuading lawmakers and the public that it is trustworthy.
This new messaging moves away from Facebook’s disingenuous and groveling “pivot to privacy” that dominated its approach to P.R. since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Instead, Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook’s leadership team have been promoting the idea that Facebook is a thoughtful, woke corporation that cares about free expression and whose mission is merely to do good.
How does a potentially disruptive digital currency like Libra fit into this image? By being marketed as the answer to the prayers of the downtrodden.
The Libra Association claims Libra’s mission is “to enable a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.” At a recent Vanity Fair summit, for example, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “I think it’s really important to think about how many people in the world are not financially included in the banking system . . . By the way, not a shock, most of those are women.” At the same summit, Sandberg told Katie Couric that the company wasn’t motivated by profit but responsibility in taking political ads: “We’re not doing this for the money. We take political ads because we really believe they are part of political discourse.”
In a speech last week at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg repeatedly mentioned Facebook’s supposed high-mindedness. Since founding Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “I’ve focused on building services to do two things: give people voice and bring people together. These two simple ideas–voice and inclusion—go hand in hand.” He contrasted his values with those of China, noting, “China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”
Constantly raising the menace of China is the second part of Facebook’s new P.R. strategy. As Zuckerberg noted in his prepared statement to the House Committee, “While we debate these issues, the rest of the world isn’t waiting. China is moving quickly to launch similar ideas in the coming months. Libra will be backed mostly by dollars, and I believe it will extend America’s financial leadership as well as our democratic values and oversight around the world. If America doesn’t innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed.”
And it’s not just Zuckerberg. Throughout the spring, as part of the company’s attempt to rehabilitate its image, Sandberg frequently mentioned Chinese ascendance on the internet as something only Facebook could prevent from happening. In an interview with CNBC in May, Sandberg was explicit about this, claiming, “While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States with the size and power of Chinese companies, and the realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.” In other words, if you have to choose totalitarian-style control of the Internet, which version do you prefer, the one wrapped in feel-good bromides spouted by a hoodie-wearing tech company founder or the one that comes with a vast surveillance state? (1984 or Brave New World?)
The idea that embracing Facebook’s digital currency dream is an act of patriotic duty is odd considering that the Libra Association is based in Switzerland and describes itself as a combination of “geographically distributed and diverse businesses, nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions.”
So, too, is the idea that a company now notorious for repeatedly compromising its users’ privacy and trust has somehow miraculously decided to devote itself to uplift and patriotism, not profit.
“I get that I’m not the ideal messenger for this right now,” Zuckerberg told members of Congress. “We certainly have work to do to build trust.” That is an understatement. And as Andrew Marantz noted of Zuckerberg’s repeated attempts to wrap himself in the cloak of free speech and free expression during his Georgetown speech, “When a public figure spends too much time repeating a particular platitude, strenuously pledging to be for that which no one could possibly be against, it’s a sign the public figure is being evasive, or worse.”
Given how often Zuckerberg’s promises that Facebook would do better by its users have been broken, it’s probably time to start thinking about what “worse” scenarios would look like if the world eventually embraces Libra.