Facebook doesn't seem any closer to data privacy regulation, much less getting broken up, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg's two-day visit to Capitol Hill than before he came. That's why Facebook stock rose so sharply during Zuckerberg's testimony to the Senate and House. Investors saw the same thing everyone did: A smart, if slightly robotic, corporate chieftain easily answering or swatting away questions from tech-illiterate politicians. If Congress has only a tenuous grasp of how the social media platform's ad-driven business model works, it's probably not very likely Democrats and Republicans can agree on significant new rules constraining it anytime soon.
But as Team Facebook analyzes their boss's performance, they should give special focus to his questioning by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz used his five minutes to grill Zuckerberg about his concern that "Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship." Among the examples Cruz cited: Facebook suppressing conservative stories from trending news in 2016, temporarily shutting down a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page in 2012, and blocking the Facebook page of President Trump supporters and video bloggers Diamond and Silk.
Zuckerberg didn't specifically address Cruz's examples of bias. And while conceding that Facebook's Silicon Valley home was indeed "an extremely left-leaning place," Zuckerberg also emphasized that he was "very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas."
Now to many tech reporters covering the hearings, the exchange seemed like a distraction from more important issues like privacy and Russian meddling during the 2016 election. And rather than follow up on Cruz's line of questioning, some merely dismissed it as Cruz trying to avoid the issue of his 2014 re-election campaign's involvement with Cambridge Analytica. As the tech website Gizmodo put it, "Rather than discuss the $5.8 million Cruz's campaign paid to a data firm that used the stolen Facebook information of 87 million people, Cruz wanted to insinuate that Zuckerberg is waging some sort of war on Christmas."
But many on the right saw Cruz's questioning as completely relevant and perhaps the highlight of the hearings. The Federalist, a Trumpy conservative site, rejoiced that "Ted Cruz savaged Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook's tendency to shut down and silence conservatives and conservative ideas." Another site, ConservativeHQ, called Cruz the "star of the show" who "nailed Zuckerberg's liberal bias." And even a cursory look at Facebook itself saw many right-leaning users expressing similar opinions.
Clearly Zuckerberg was not prepared to answer Cruz's charges. But when asked about Diamond and Silk the next day in the House hearing, Zuckerberg was ready. He called the situation an "enforcement error." (After Zuckerberg's Senate testimony the day before, Facebook said it initially labeled Diamond and Silk content as "unsafe" before reconsidering.) That response earned a large font, all-cap headline from Breitbart: "ZUCK BEFORE HOUSE: SAYS NO BIAS. CONSERVATIVES NOT CENSORED, JUST 'ENFORCEMENT ERROR' … "
The "techlash" on the right against Big Tech mostly isn't about data privacy or foreign powers weaponizing platforms or concerns about monopoly and competition. Rather it's just another front in America's culture war. Many on the right see Silicon Valley as just another institution, like the media and higher education, that's biased against conservatives. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been running a series of "Tech Tyranny" segments on his show highlighting supposed tech crimes such as helping China's artificial intelligence effort and how tech is more addictive than opioids. But Carlson's campaign against Big Tech actually started with a defense of James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired after writing a memo about the company's "ideological echo chamber." Other conservatives fear that Facebook will try to make up for Trump by helping throw the 2020 election to the Democrats.
Now in a country less beset by political tribalism and political opportunism, one might see Cruz's various bias claims as isolated incidents. Facebook's two billion users generate and share massive amounts of content. It's not unreasonable to expect a mistake or two when monitoring it, as Zuckerberg responded when the issue came up during his House testimony. (Of course, tech firms would be wise to take the advice of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who advised Facebook "to lean over backwards to make sure that you are fair in protecting political speech, right or left... .")
But that is not the country we live in. It often seems as if everything is political and sides must always be chosen. And that is why the risk of Washington eventually regulating Big Tech, perhaps recklessly so, is higher than it might appear right now. In other, more normal times, the right's natural pro-market bias might lead them to defend America's most valuable and innovative companies against thoughtless and ill-informed state intervention. But as #Resist Twitter incessantly reminds us, these are not normal times.