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Was Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate Appearance About More Than Theater?

YouTube, via PBS News Hour

From Texas Standard.

The first day of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress wrapped up Tuesday. Zuckerberg sat alone at a brown wooden table, surrounded by nearly half the Senate, and by the look of things, just as many photographers. He was there to answer questions about the social network’s role in presidential election meddling and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

After hours of questioning, are lawmakers satisfied with what they learned? Or, like so many congressional hearings, has the Facebook CEO’s turn in the hot seat become just another instance of political theater?

Mark Harkins, senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, says Zuckerberg has been effective so far at answering questions he wanted to answer, while avoiding those he didn’t. And if Zuckerberg managed to gain something from the spectacle, so did members of the Senate.

“Members of Congress’ time is extremely valuable,” Harkins says, “and if they’re going to spend a lot of it sitting at a hearing, they’re going to want to get something back from it. The way they get something back from it is normally getting press, or being able to move forward with a legislative initiative. So a lot of it is theater, but a little bit of it is still legislative.”

Harkins says congressional grilling of perceived bad actors has had varying results over the years. The 1994 hearing in which tobacco industry executives were called to account for the way they sold cigarettes didn’t result in congressional action, but did set the stage for the massive tobacco settlement in 1999, which was spearheaded by state attorneys general. In 2009, bankers appeared on Capitol Hill to answer for their part in the 2008 financial crisis. Harkins says those hearings ultimately led to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

For viewers and the media, high-profile hearings, – whether they feature private sector figures being offered up as villains, or government officials being called to account for public actions – also have the potential to function as entertainment.

“Sometimes it’s like following NASCAR,” Harkins says. “You’re watching the race, but you’re waiting to see if there’s going to be a wreck.”

Hearings can be like entertainment in another way, too, Harkins says. “I think we’re so used to television shows where the great reveal happens, that folks hope to see that in the congressional hearing, but their attention span is about 22 minutes.”

If the Zuckerberg hearings are to represent more than just a moment in political time, Harkins says it will be because the CEO and members of Congress find ways to talk to one another – rather than at one another – about regulation of Facebook and the tech industry more broadly.

“Zuckerberg in this instance seemed to be speaking for the entire industry,” Harkins says, “which is a dangerous place for any one individual to be. But I thought he did an excellent job of at least framing the problem as ‘yes, we’ve made mistakes, we need to move forward. But let’s move forward together.'”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.