Incidentally, so does Congress.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey went virtually to Washington this week to talk about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the provision that protects platforms like theirs from liability for most of what their users post. This sounds awfully technical, and it is — but that’s mostly irrelevant, because lawmakers these days display little interest in making law. They are much more interested in making theater. The odd couple called to testify this week aren’t so much guest stars as they are props in an elaborate and never-ending performance art that’s starting to get old.
Zuckerberg was summoned for his first flagellation in 2018 following the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio. A chorus of 100 lawmakers assembled to fire nearly 600 queries at him over the course of 10 hours. His testimony offered nary a novel insight and nary a scandalous slip-up, but no one cared. The point, for legislators, was to speak rather than be spoken to and to scold a hoodied schoolboy billionaire. The schoolboy showed up wearing a suit, and that was what mattered most.
Dorsey made it five months before he, too, was dragged across the country for the same treatment. The composure that in Zuckerberg comes across as practiced has always seemed more like a personality trait for Dorsey: He’s definitely weird, but in a chill way. The clean-cut corporatism that the robotic Facebook boss brings to the witness table is a whole different type of Silicon Valley nerdy than the nose-ringed Twitter maven’s calm detachment.
Whereas Zuckerberg spends his free time surfing with so much zinc oxide smeared on his mug that he looks like a vacationing mime, Dorsey meditates. He typically wears all black and a beard; he kept the latter and ditched the former for his initial appearance before representatives. Suit? Why not. Tie? Forget about it. Put together, the men are perfect foils for lawmakers eager to demonstrate their techlashing credentials.
Over time, these two CEOs have only become more themselves. “Senator,” Zuckerberg starts almost every reply as if he were as automated as his algorithms. “Senator, we sell ads.” “Senator, my team will get back to you.” “Senator, I don’t know.” He is utterly unflappable and utterly predictable. His reliable lack of deviation from his own script means legislators have no need to deviate from theirs.
Dorsey, for his part, has morphed into a parody of his own punk-mystic persona by extending his beard by several inches and apparently neglecting to brush it.
This is all convenient for lawmakers, who all know nothing is going to change. Republicans want social media sites to stop taking down so much legal content, regardless of whether it harms our democracy or meshes with reality; Democrats want social media sites to simply take down more. Congress isn’t going to reform Section 230 because the two parties have opposing problems with it and don’t really appear to understand the measure in any case. So it’s all pageantry.
“We live in a dangerous world,” intoned Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to begin his seven-minute time allotment, as if voicing over a disaster flick trailer. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) punctuated his presentation about what appeared to be an anodyne internal Facebook project management tool with “ahhs” and “hmms,” as if he were detective Hercule Poirot delivering a devastating denouement to a Zuckerberg caught red-handed.
The opening statement from Graham ran through the canon of right-wing Internet grievances: the ayatollah of Iran’s Twitter account, mail-in ballots, Hunter Biden. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) later adopted the character of Jake Sherman. He mimicked the political reporter protesting an enforcement action by Twitter against his sharing of that dubious story about a certain laptop: “Oh, my overlords in Silicon Valley! I was attacking the New York Post — you don’t understand, I was attacking them!”
Maybe the sound bites appease a gnashing base. But here’s the thing about performance: It’s just for show. And it certainly isn’t policy. As long as melodramatics sub in for government and set pieces take the place of oversight, the power of these platforms remains unchecked.
So who’s really getting played?