For Mark Zuckerberg, Protecting Facebook Means Stepping Into the Spotlight

For many years, Mark Zuckerberg left matters in Washington to his deputies, who have long experience in politics. The Facebook chief executive instead focused on Facebook’s future, overseeing the development of cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality and live video streaming.

Now, the insularity that shielded Zuckerberg from having to directly defend Facebook in front of lawmakers and regulators has finally cracked. This week, for the first time, the 33-year-old billionaire is scheduled to testify before Congress, part of a crusade to protect not only the company he founded as a college dropout but also his broader legacy. Whether Facebook — and other tech giants, including Google and Twitter — faces more regulation hangs in part on what he says during two long hearings. Instead of planning for the future, Zuckerberg is scrambling to buy time to fix Facebook’s past mistakes.

Zuckerberg travelled to Washington, DC, over the weekend and has holed up with advisers to prepare for the hearings, people who work with him said. One of those advisers was Reginald Brown, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, from the Washington law firm WilmerHale. Zuckerberg is training for the hearings as a candidate would for a debate, engaging in role play; getting coached on how not to appear defensive; and anticipating questions about data privacy, disinformation, his ability to prevent foreign interference in elections and whether the company’s business model causes harm. Along with Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, he has gone on a rare media tour to emphasise that fixing Facebook will take several years.

The chief executive is driven, according to more than a dozen colleagues and friends, by an optimistic desire for the social network to be seen not only as a ubiquitous communication tool — as necessary as the Internet itself — but as a product people love. The same idealism that led him to create his unprecedented social network also led to blind spots, they said. But he is now starting to understand that saving Facebook will require him to evolve personally, said early Facebook investor Reid Hoffman.

«I think Mark thinks, ‘If people can see the product, they can see what we’re trying to do, and so they don’t need to talk to me,’ » he said. «But being a leader of a company that is a ‘social infrastructure’ — that is a major part of people’s lives — means that lots of people need to see a person, too.»

Zuckerberg’s optimism has butted up against widespread public disappointment and growing pressure for more regulation from lawmakers in the United States and Europe. Facebook recently admitted that a Trump-campaign-connected data consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, misappropriated the personal information of up to 87 million people, which prompted lawmakers to call for the hearings that are set for Tuesday and Wednesday. Facebook also disclosed that its search tool enabled «malicious actors» to scrape the profiles of nearly all 2.2 billion Facebook users.

Consumer outrage has given rise to a #DeleteFacebook campaign, and the company’s stock price — invincible for most of Facebook’s six years as a public company — has tumbled 14 percent in the past three weeks. A recent study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that just 12 percent of people trusted Facebook as a news source. Another poll by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that Facebook’s favorability fell 28 points in the past five months — more than twice as much as that of rivals Amazon and Google.

The rising sense of distrust is upsetting to Zuckerberg, a man so concerned about his public image that he once kept a full-time personal pollster on staff to gauge granular shifts in the public’s perception of him. It’s a stark reversal from even last year, when a tour he conducted of the country led pundits to conclude that he might run for president. (He has said he doesn’t want to.)

Facebook did not make Zuckerberg available for an interview for this article, citing his need to focus on the hearings. In a copy of prepared testimony released before the hearings, Zuckerberg emphasised his ownership of the company’s mistakes and apologised for not recognising that digital tools that can do immense good can also be used for harm. «We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.»

The chief executive’s congressional performance could help determine how much regulation Facebook faces in the years to come. Bills to regulate technology companies, which have long benefited from less government oversight than other industries, are moving forward in Congress and in Facebook’s home state, California. Next month Europe will usher in a sweeping new data privacy regime that will penalise companies that misuse data with fines of up to 4 percent of global profits.

Critics say Facebook’s «move fast and break things» culture, embodied by Zuckerberg, will not fundamentally change without government taking a stronger hand. «I have zero confidence that Facebook should be allowed to self-regulate,» said Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a group that advocates for technology companies to take more steps to protect children. «The eighth version of ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘trust us’ is just not acceptable.»

Zuckerberg and his top deputies have long held deep concerns about governments exercising more control of the technology industry. For the past two years, senior executives have «been kept up at night» by concerns that Facebook would be perceived as too powerful and invite more regulation, said a person who was involved with the discussions.

Zuckerberg has a more complicated approach to the question of Facebook’s power. He has expressed worries, sometimes in jest, about the government shutting down Facebook one day, said two people who worked with him closely — and recently said he was considering how to create an independent board of outside experts to review Facebook’s decisions on scrubbing content. But he also has embraced Facebook’s unprecedented role in the world, telling close colleagues that he would rather run Facebook than be the president of the United States, said one of the people.

At Facebook’s highest ranks, Zuckerberg is surrounded by colleagues who have known him for years. Many have worked together since the early days of the company. Only a few have left for other firms. The executives have built the social network together and fought many battles along the way, creating an atmosphere of intense loyalty and a sense of mission that is striking even for Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg himself is known to be highly loyal. He takes on other people’s mistakes as his own, supporters say.

But talking to lawmakers has largely been other people’s job. He rarely visits Washington and has delegated most of the work of managing lawmakers to Sandberg, who once served as chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, and to a few top lieutenants in the company’s large Washington office. (Sandberg also runs Facebook’s advertising business, which last year made up the bulk of the company’s $40.6 billion in revenue. In a recent interview, Zuckerberg said he focuses «much less» on the company’s ad business.) Together, Sandberg and her top deputy, Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage, have built a policy and communications operation of roughly 500 people.

When congressional committees called on Facebook to testify in the fall about how Russians used the platform to manipulate voters around the 2016 presidential election, Zuckerberg sent Vice President and General Counsel Colin Stretch in his place. He has been sceptical of Washington trying to exert too much power over the tech industry.

Still, the string of crises going back to late 2016, and scrutiny of the role of misinformation during the presidential campaign, have spurred change. Repairing trust is now a constant discussion among executives, who meet every Monday to talk about the challenges, said Facebook Vice President David Marcus, who runs the company’s Messenger app. Zuckerberg, he said, has ordered what people say is a «360 review» across the company in response to the Cambridge Analytica controversy, requiring every product team to come up with ways to use the minimum amount of user data required to run the service.

«His struggle is what we’re all struggling with right now, which is coming to terms with the broader responsibility for the impact of our platform,» said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who has worked alongside Zuckerberg since 2005. «It’s something we’re all taking seriously, but Mark more than anyone. He created this place.»

For all of Facebook’s mistakes, Zuckerberg is still very much a believer in the cult of the founder. Marcus described the executive, who is worth more than $60 billion, as «an unbelievable learning machine.» One way he has maintained control over his image has been to largely confine his public appearances to friendly audiences, including university graduates, Facebook employees who attend his weekly company-wide Q&A and people who watch messages posted on his personal Facebook page.

In a meeting last year, he said he «felt sorry» for Uber founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick, who was ousted by the ride-hailing company’s board after months of allegations of mismanagement, according to a person familiar with the conversations. His comment left colleagues dumbfounded, the person said. (He’s also fiercely competitive: Even a mention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whom Zuckerberg strongly dislikes and considers a rival, can get him riled up, according to two people who worked closely with Zuckerberg.)

Zuckerberg has long been considered synonymous with Facebook. But after only a few weeks of fallout from the Cambridge Analytica crisis, that assumption is suddenly not taken for granted. In response to a recent question about whether he is still the right person to run Facebook — mostly theoretical because he controls voting authority on the board of directors — Zuckerberg quickly answered, «Yes, I think life is about learning from mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward.»

© The Washington Post 2018

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