Mark Zuckerberg 3 – global legislators nil: Facebook at the European Parliament

The Facebook CEO’s testimony before the European Parliament was, if anything, even less edifying than his US congressional appearances.

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Mark Zuckerberg has the look of a man who knows that he is winning.

In his appearance on Tuesday before the EU parliament, he opened with what sounded like half an apology, half a victory lap. He reiterated his: “we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibilities. That was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” line, which is a smart piece of verbal jiu jitsu in itself, framing the colossal mistakes of 2016 as a teachable moment, rather than near-criminal negligence.

But he dialed up his tone to near-boastful as well, saying that “there are 18 million small businesses here in Europe that use Facebook today, mostly for free, almost half of whom say that they have hired more people as a result of our tools”.

With some exceptions, most of the panel of European lawmakers questioning him seem to have watched closely as their US counterparts floundered with uninformed and sometimes near-unintelligible questions, and so some of them even asked questions that even approached insightful at times. Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian MEP who is also parliament’s lead on Brexit, asked whether Zuckerberg wanted to be remembered “as one of the three big internet giants, together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who enriched our worlds and our societies? Or … [as] the genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies?”

Philippe Lamberts, the co-chair of the European Green party and another Belgian MEP, asked six searing yes-or-no questions, including whether Facebook would “systematically and publically” release data on all relevant political advertising on their platform both going forward and historically, including from the Brexit referendum.

But their questions went largely unanswered.

Zuckerberg is getting very good at performative listening. He takes careful notes, asks for questions to be repeated, and gave another assured performance.

But the real problem was that the format of the event, even more than it was during his US testimony in April, was vastly in Zuckerberg’s favour. In Washington, the problem was that each of the Facebook founder’s interlocutors had only a couple of minutes to ask their questions, and Zuckerberg only a few minutes to answer them. But in Brussels, the hearing was much shorter; less than an eighth of the length of the marathon ten hours of questioning he faced in DC.

Worse, all of the questions were asked in one clump, and then Zuckerberg had just 20 minutes or so in which to respond to all of them – making it tragically easy for him to stay within his comfort-zone.

Nor was the event much freer of political showboating than the Congress debacle, where Ted Cruz elicited groans as he tried to ask a slimy and self-serving question about the supposed suppression of conservative voices on the platform. Playing the Cruz role this time was none other than Britain’s Nigel Farage, who took the opportunity first to boast about how many Facebook followers he had, and then, preposterously, to call for a “social media bill of rights” to protect snowflakes like him. It is unclear what role he believes UK parliamentary sovereignty would play in such an EU bill.

Others tried to press home the question that US senator Lindsey Graham had raised, which was whether Facebook constituted a monopoly. But Zuckerberg was able to easily deflect this line of questioning as well, saying that Facebook exists in “a very competitive space” and there were “new competitors coming up every day,” before pivoting, with breathtaking chutzpah, to talk about how he believes Facebook is pro-competition because of the number of small businesses which use its platform. Because of the format, there was no opportunity for the lawmakers to push back at him at all on any of these assertions.

Lamberts, clearly enraged by this, took Zuckerberg to task at the end of the hearing for allowing the event to be set up in such a way. “I asked six yes or no questions and got not a single answer,” the Green party co-chair said angrily.

For the third time in a row, thanks to low expectations, lawmakers and the public have allowed themselves somehow to be surprised at Zuckerberg’s self-discipline and ability to perform plausibly at an event. We will likely never get the Zuckerberg questioning that we deserve.

Correction: This article was updated on 24 May to remove comments from Lamberts suggesting that the question format had been suggested by Zuckerberg. It was in fact suggested by European Parliament President Antonio Tajani. 

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.