Monday 14 October 2019

Zuckerberg shows but doesn't tell

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc. Photo: Bloomberg
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc. Photo: Bloomberg
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

For a guy who insists he has no political ambitions, Mark Zuckerberg has been spending a lot of time hanging out with politicians recently. Earlier this year it was the US Senate. This week it was European legislators. And it seems like the Facebook's CEO has well and truly mastered the dark art of avoiding answering difficult questions.

The MEPs threw a slew of humdingers at him. Belgium's Philippe Lamberts asked would Facebook allow all users to completely opt out of targeted advertising. There was no answer. Germany's Gabrielle Zimmer asked whether Facebook had moved on from being a 'hot or not' website and whether the culture of discrimination against women and sexism had changed. There was no answer.

Another German MEP, Jan Philipp Albrecht, wanted assurances that the data of European users will not be used or exchanged between the WhatsApp and Facebook. There were none.

Britain's Syed Kamall asked whether the company tracked data from non-Facebook users. The subject was abruptly changed.

Mind you, the format of the meeting session didn't help. Rather than a proper Q&A session, MEPs asked all of their questions for an hour, before Zuckerberg replied with 30 minutes of platitudes and generalities.

He did promise to follow up with written answers to the questions he didn't get to. But the difficult questions were ducked.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt - whose own questions also went unanswered - wasn't happy. "Today's pre-cooked format was inappropriate & ensured Zuckerberg could avoid our questions," he tweeted.

So what did Zuckerberg actually say?

Well, he reiterated Facebook's commitment to fighting fake news and hate speech. He also reminded everyone that artificial intelligence will be at the frontline of this battle. He said that the company had suspended more than 200 apps following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but said that he expected to find others that had misused customer data.

He rejected the suggestion that his company was a monopoly, saying the average users rely on eight tools and apps for online communication. Similarly, he rejected that Facebook had a commercial monopoly, as it only accounts for 6pc of all global ad spend.

Convinced? Don't be. This may be a small percentage - but in absolute terms it's an eye-watering number. Facebook's ad revenue for the first quarter of 2018 was $11.97bn.

Zuckerberg also took the opportunity to remind the European politicians that Facebook supported plenty of jobs and businesses in Europe. Eighteen million European small businesses use Facebook's tools to reach customers. And Facebook offers them the ability to reach consumers with sophisticated marketing and advertising tools.

Almost half of these businesses have told Facebook that they are hiring more people as a result. Plus, it has 10,000 employees in Europe. And let's not forget the data centres it has in Sweden and Ireland, with another on the way in Denmark.

Bar the reminders of Facebook's contribution to European economies, it was all familiar turf. Anyone who tuned into the Senate commerce and judiciary committees in April would have felt a twinge of deja vu. So if he has nothing to say, why is Zuckerberg doing the political rounds?

Firstly, he seems to genuinely believe he's doing the right thing. "I believe deeply in what we're doing," he told the MEPs.

"And when we address these challenges, I know we'll look back and view helping people connect and giving more people a voice as a positive force here in Europe and around the world."

And thanks to that belief, Zuckerberg is taking a leaf out of Andy Warhol's book. He's turning up. You can criticise his appearances for being robotic, naive, evasive, or disingenuous, but he's showing some leadership by showing his face.

This is more than can be said for many other tech titans who should face similar questions from legislators.

But the politicians aren't the audience that really matters. Facebook's genius has always been in knowing that if you have the users you have everything. And while there have been some recent speed bumps, users still love Facebook. The company purged 583 million fake accounts recently; there was no impact on audience reach. The #deleteFacebook backlash never really grew legs. Time spent on Facebook has also gone up. Best of all, Facebook's share price is back up to pre-Cambridge Analytica levels. Maybe Zuckerberg is a businessman and not a politician after all.

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