How US Senators Should Have Handled the Facebook Hearing

Mark Zuckerberg testifies on Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty Images.
Mark Zuckerberg testifies on Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty Images.

Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing is painful to watch. Not because Mark himself is more comfortable in his natural habitat on Hacker Square than in the US capital. But because most of the senators’ questions revealed all-too publicly how little they frame their lives according to the barometer of a digital age.

This isn’t to say that they needed a more technical background, of course. Even after spending eight years at Facebook as a public spokeswoman for the company, I couldn’t even begin to understand the code that my colleagues on the engineering team would write, revise and push. But it is to say that the vast majority of senators in the room lacked a user’s perspective: the perspective of the vast majority of Facebook’s two billion active users who are just that – active on the platform.

The problem with these proceedings, of course, is the power structure we’ve created in our societies. The more senior politicians rise up the ranks and the more powerful they become, the more they get to be in the room and ask the questions. Yet so often, the most powerful people in the room are not the right people to be asking the questions.

Here’s how the hearing could have been a truly illuminating experience, not only for the US Senate, but also for the public viewers watching on YouTube, Facebook Live and television, and indeed for Mark Zuckerberg and his team, who ultimately need a better indication of the questions that concern people most in order to devise their strategy moving forward.

Imagine if every senator in the hearing invited a junior staffer to join them.

In advance of the hearing, the senator would have already sat down with the staffer to discuss his or her concerns about the topic at hand. Sat next to the senator at the hearing, the staffer could have translated these concerns into questions that not only would have made sense given the topics under current scrutiny, but would have gotten to the heart of what the Senate really needs to know in order to move forward productively. Follow-up questions posed would have gone even deeper to the core challenges Facebook and Congress face, while giving the rest of the public an opportunity to come to a more nuanced conclusion of our concerns and/or reassurances post-hearing.

While this image may appear at first read a bit farcical, imagine how bold it would have been. The point is not that the senators in the room lack expertise in their fields, but rather that the purest expression of a leader’s confidence is the moment the most powerful person in the room equips him or herself with the expertise needed to get it right.

In this case, with the world’s eyes on US Congress, imagine the respect American senators would have drawn from the people they represent and from far-flung corners of the globe by actively listening, absorbing and digesting the information delivered during a robust back-and-forth between their digitally-savvy staff and the CEO of the world’s largest social media platform. As a 21 year-old WhatsApped me while we were watching the hearing, ‘These questions are the wrong questions.’

Indeed. And it’s not just the world of politics that could stand to re-frame whether increased seniority means increased airtime – or increased confidence in designating the spokespeople to match the occasion. Business leaders are equally culpable. As the 21st century rewards a marketplace for ideas – no matter where or from who these ideas come from – so the 21st century will increasingly reward the most senior leaders to be brave enough to give someone else the microphone while they, the bosses, take really, really good notes, in turn to inform better, more prescient policies.

Elizabeth Linder, Senior Consulting Fellow, Director’s Office.

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