Senator Blumenthal, Don't Call Mark Zuckerberg to Testify

Justin Hendrix / Oct 6, 2021

Since 2017, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been a familiar face on Capitol Hill, testifying to various House and Senate committees on scandals ranging from Russian interference in the 2016 election to Cambridge Analytica to COVID-19 misinformation to the role of social media in teen mental health. Now, following a series of explosive reports and testimony by a Facebook whistleblower who brought forward thousands of pages of evidence, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told CNN's Brianna Keilar today he may call Zuckerberg again to testify before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security.

I have a suggestion for the Senator, which I submit humbly: don't call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. Instead, call the authors of the whistleblower documents.

As Sen. Blumenthal himself noted at the outset of the hearing he chaired with the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, Zuckerberg's response to these recent revelations has been confounding, to say the least. "Rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing," said Sen. Blumenthal. But while Zuckerberg may have been enjoying the spoils of his enormous wealth, his employees were on the attack. Nick Clegg, Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs dismissed criticisms of the company as "ludicrous," Vice President of Content Policy Monika Bickert called the documents Haugen brought to the Senate's attention "stolen," and Lena Pietsch, the company's Director of Policy Communications, issued a statement attacking Haugen's credentials, while communications staff took shots at her on Twitter, using a strategy The Verge called "the coward's playbook to smear the whistleblower."

Finally, late in the day after the hearing, Zuckerberg issued a statement in which he said claims made on the basis of the documents Haugen brought forward "don't make any sense," are "deeply illogical" and "not true."

Given this reaction-- to suggest the public, and Congress, should deny the evidence before it-- Zuckerberg and his senior team cannot be trusted to engage with lawmakers in good faith. As CNN's Donie O'Sullivan put it, "despite employing many talented and diligent researchers, it's Facebook's top executives who cannot be trusted when it comes to sharing the work of those researchers with the public." Indeed, as Facebook communications manager Andy Stone has noted, senior executives from the company have testified an ample number of times. It's time for a new strategy.

Facebook executives have testified 30 times in the last four years, including Facebook's global head of safety, @DavisAntigone, in front of Sen. Blackburn's subcommittee just last week.

— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 5, 2021

So, I propose this: Sen. Blumenthal should go through the whistleblower documents, and call the authors of the various memos and research studies to testify on Capitol Hill. Where there are concerns about privacy, these testimonies can be conducted in closed door sessions and with counsel or expert staff. Such discussions are likely to get to a much richer and more accurate understanding of the issues at play- and how lawmakers should craft policies in response.

While Congress has access to a much larger trove of documents and names of Facebook staff associated with them, the disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission by the nonprofit group representing Haugen, Whistleblower Aid, point to a variety of documents that could use further explanation in the footnotes. These include memos and presentations with titles such as:

  • Problematic Non-violating Narratives
  • Carol's Journey to QAnon- A Test user Study of Misinfo & Polarization Risks Encountered Through Recommendations Systems (Part 1)
  • Misinfo narrowcasting on Instagram Home
  • Virality Reduction as Integrity Strategy
  • Political Influence Content Policy
  • Employee concerns on political misinfo policies
  • Hate Speech Cost Controls
  • Misinfo in comments
  • What is Collateral Damage?
  • Identifying Narrowcast Misinfo Hard because missing or miscalibrated doubt
  • Comparing the effects of misinfo from politicians vs. ordinary user sources
  • 2020-08-18 Political Influence on Content Policy
  • Effects of Politician Shared Misinformation
  • Deep Reshares and Misinformation
  • Fighting high harm misinfo with deep reshare damping
  • Political party response to the '18 Algorithm change
  • Harmful Non-violating Narratives
  • Killswitch plan for all Group Recommendation Surfaces
  • Sociographic Segments may be impactful for hate speech and voter suppression
  • Measuring Human Perception to Defend Democracy
  • Serial misinfo and hate offenders
  • Mark Feedback on Soft Action Proposal + Deck Presented to Mark
  • Filtering out engagement-bait, bullying and excessive comments from MSI Deltoid metric 11/1 onwards
  • Update on Political Publisher Issues
  • Capitol Riots Breaks the Glass
  • Response to events in early January 2021- lessons for algorithmic interventions
  • IG Jan 6 Capitol Riot Violence Update
  • Comments on Zuckerberg's response to capitol riots
  • Demoting on Integrity Signals
  • Afghanistan Hate Speech analysis
  • Hate begets hate and violence begets violence (George Floyd)
  • Stop the Steal and Patriot Party
  • Dangerous Growth of Civic Groups
  • Hate Speech capacity reduction plan
  • User severity for hate speech
  • We are responsible for Viral Content
  • Apple Escalation - How we made it through this SEV document
  • Domestic Servitude Tracking in the Middle East
  • Human Trafficking 2020H1 i3 Roadmap
  • Domestic Servitude Awareness Project- Preventative Approach
  • Developing MSI Weight
  • Replacing Downstream MSI for Civic and Health
  • Does Facebook Reward Outrage? Posts that generate negative reactions get more clicks
  • Case Study: Controlling for Publisher Posts with Negatively Charged Comment Threats Fare Better in Feed
  • Demoting on Integrity Signals is Not Enough
  • Docs MSI Metric FAST Review 2019-11-14
  • Using p(anger) to reduce the impact angry reactions have on ranking levers
  • Harmful Topic Communities
  • Harmful Conspiracies
  • Adversarial Harmful Networks- India Case Study
  • Burmese Hate Speech Classifier
  • Why teens and young adults choose Instagram
  • Will Teens Eventually Adopt Facebook
  • Young Adults X FAST Research
  • 2017 Teen Engagement Decline Update
  • March 2021 - state of teens and young adults on FB and IG
  • Young Adults FB Strategy (Nov 2020)
  • What we know about continued decline in OGPS

The authors of these documents are more likely to behave as the qualified witnesses that Congress needs to speak with than the senior executives of the company, who have shown repeatedly they cannot be trusted to act in good faith.

If, after Sen. Blumenthal hosts a series of informational sessions with these executives, he then chooses to ask Zuckerberg to appear before the committee, he should consider using counsel or expert staff to do some of the questioning. Zuckerberg's playbook of responses-- refusing to answer questions, deflecting to get more information before providing a response, or pivoting to other matters-- will be more difficult with much more specifically designed questions.

"We can't count on Mark Zuckerberg to tell us the truth," Sen. Blumenthal told CNN's Keilar. "He has lost all trust, if he ever had any."

Indeed- and it's time for lawmakers to dig deeper to get to the truth.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...