It’s a photograph you may never see on Mark Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page: The man himself, right hand raised as he swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Still, it will probably be all over Facebook and the rest of the Internet Tuesday, when the Facebook chief executive begins two days of questioning by members of Congress about the company’s failure to protect the privacy of its users. This is likely to be a memorable moment in the history of the social network, and certainly an embarrassing one for its founder.
Zuckerberg’s week will probably get worse from there. Members of the House and Senate, many facing reelection races, will be eager to blast Zuckerberg and be seen standing up to one of America’s richest and — for the moment — most unloved businessmen.
Members of Congress are outraged about disclosures that Facebook was used by trolls and propagandists linked to the Russian government to post fake political news and stir tensions during the 2016 presidential election.
And then came the discovery that a British firm, Cambridge Analytica, had used illicit methods to obtain data on 87 million Facebook users, in a bid to assist the election campaign of Donald Trump.
So Zuckerberg, who met individually with members of Congress on Monday, will appear on Tuesday before a joint session of the Senate’s Judiciary and Commerce committees, and before a House committee on Wednesday.
His written testimony was released earlier. In it, he again apologized for undermining Facebook users’ privacy and restated the company’s previously announced plans to reform its practices. The plans include tight limits on the personal information made available to third-party apps offered by Facebook, an easier way for users to limit access to their personal information, and a new requirement that political ad buyers identify themselves and their funding sources.
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” Zuckerberg wrote. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, said that apart from ritual denunciations of Facebook’s privacy practices, he doesn’t expect the hearings to produce much of substance.
“I think he’s going to say he’s sorry . . . and I think the congressmen and women are going to say that sorry’s not good enough, and he’s going to say he’s sorry some more,” said Edelman, who specializes in the business practices of Internet companies. “None of it really gets to the core of the issue, though.”
In its latest effort to repent, Facebook is turning to a Harvard professor to help study how the company is influencing elections worldwide.
Facebook’s political research initiative will be based on the work of Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, and Nate Persily, a law professor at Stanford University. It will be funded by several major nonprofits, including the Hewlett Knight and Sloan foundations.
Another of the funders is the Charles Koch Foundation, which is known for donating millions to explicitly conservative and libertarian causes and is deeply unpopular with many liberals. For instance, Wellesley College has come under fire for its Koch Foundation-funded Freedom Project, which describes itself as “a unique intellectual space for promoting tolerance, pluralism, intellectual diversity, and freedom of expression.“
King said he sought the participation of the Koch Foundation to demonstrate that the research program would be open to diverse political viewpoints.
Social scientists have wanted to get their hands on Facebook data for years, because it could offer a vast trove of insights on many aspects of human behavior. “I’ve been trying to convince them, as has most of the academic community, to make data available, since they were founded,” King said.
The solution is a commission of respected academic researchers who will have complete access to the vast troves of data housed at Facebook. They will work with Facebook data scientists to identify worthwhile research topics, with electoral issues at the top of the list. For instance, they might choose to study how ads on Facebook affect voter turnout.
The commission will invite independent academic researchers to apply for grants to study the topic. Facebook will only provide data relevant to each research project, in a tightly controlled manner.
Facebook will give up any right to review or approve the results of any research prior to its publication. “Our model ensures that the company’s interests are protected, the data is secure and kept private, and the researchers maintain independence,” King and Persily wrote in announcing the initiative.
King said a number of scholars have expressed interest in participating; he, too, expects to have some ongoing role in the project.
King said that studying Facebook’s effect on elections is just the beginning. The initiative will allow social scientists to study data about millions of people, collected by all kinds of private companies — without compromising anyone’s privacy.
“I think there are so many things we could have an impact on,” King said, “just a vast array of questions.”