Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was subject to one of the harshest punishments America can reserve for one of its rich white executives today, when the U.S. Congress forced him to have a five-minute, inescapable conversation with Texas senator Ted Cruz. Cruz—who seemed extremely upset at the idea that Facebook might have censored the good people of the Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Page, and their various opinions on homophobic chicken—was one of several members of the Judiciary Committee who questioned Zuckerberg this afternoon, ostensibly about the social media platform’s impact on the current political landscape, but really just to make him field every nasty rumor they, or their various congressional interns, have ever heard about him or his company.
But here’s the thing: Cruz aside—because, honestly, fuck Ted Cruz—it’s hard not to hear these august senators ask questions like, “Hey, does Facebook really delete our data when we delete our accounts?” or “If I talk about sandwiches and then Facebook shows me an ad for Quizno’s, is that because y’all are constantly listening to my phone?” and not think, “Well…hm.” Zuckerberg denied them all, of course, but that’s kind of the point: Who trusts Mark Zuckerberg in 2018?
It’s been four years since Facebook was publicly derided for treating its users’ timeline like an undergrad psych lab, openly admitting to tinkering with different people’s story-sorting algorithms to see what sorts of emotional effects and posting behaviors it might produce. The intervening years have only seen the company get bigger and bigger, and its data-collection activities more in-depth, a trend that culminated in the general emotional distress surrounding the platform’s impact on the 2016 election in general, and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal specifically. So when Zuckerberg testifies that his company doesn’t, say, sell users’ data to outside companies—it only uses that data to allow companies to target you and your friends and your family on its own site—he’s almost certainly telling the truth. But that distinction’s no longer really capable of penetrating the anxieties of the Facebook-using public, in this case represented by a bunch of cranky old senators who want to be sure to be able to get their own TV-friendly angry soundbites in. We’ve all seen The Social Network, after all, and nobody wants to be the next Winklevii.
Zuckerberg spent most of his big day in Congress saying he didn’t know the answers to his interlocutor’s specific angry queries, while basically saying, over and over, that he and Facebook hope to do better in the future. But does it really matter? As this airing of the national irritations suggest, Facebook and Zuckerberg have officially reached the “Did Michael Jackson really buy the Elephant Man’s bones?” portion of their public life—at this point, we’ll believe any damn thing about them, as long as it’s sufficiently unsavory or weird.