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What we learned about Facebook from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony

Lawmakers pressed Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday to explain why Facebook waited years to tell users about the Cambridge Analytica breach, as well as whether the social media giant tracks users across devices and after they leave the platform. Amna Nawaz gets analysis from Franklin Foer of The Atlantic about what we learned about Facebook’s founder today, and what questions remain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now our correspondent Amna Nawaz looks further at some of what we learned today and some questions that remain.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    And for that, I'm joined by Franklin Foer, a staff writer for "The Atlantic," and author of "World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech."

    Thanks for being here.

  • Franklin Foer:

    Pleasure.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    You watched the testimony today. It's fair to say Mark Zuckerberg went in a bit on the back foot. How do you think he did?

  • Franklin Foer:

    Well, I think if you look six months ago at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was discussed as a potential presidential candidate, Facebook disavowed that it was a publisher, that it was the world's biggest gatekeeper.

    Facebook pushed back against the prospect of government regulating it. And if you look at today's performance, while he was technically I think very proficient in swatting away some of the concerns of senators, their role in the world has fundamentally changed.

    He was conceding that Facebook is going to be regulated by government, and that regulation might ultimately be good for Facebook and Facebook's users. He conceded that Facebook is a publisher, that it has responsibilities for the content that it publishes.

    And so the Zeitgeist has shifted dramatically. His game, I think, is trying to preserve Facebook's dominant position, its monopoly. He would rather have this discussion be about the prospect of the regulation, rather than the prospect of having a discussion about antitrust and about breaking up the company.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    You mentioned him swatting away some of those questions. What did he not say or not answer today that you thought he would or should have?

  • Franklin Foer:

    Yes.

    Well, look, he was trying to — he was disavowing Facebook's role in collecting people's data. He portrayed Facebook as being a system where people were making all sorts of conscious choices to have their data collected by Facebook.

    And so I think that he was being fairly disingenuous. There was a question that you just showed where he was saying that Facebook — he doesn't know whether Facebook tracks you across all their devices.

    Well, of course he knows that. And one of the issues that I think is really important that he didn't discuss is the role of manipulation in Facebook's system. It came up very narrowly in the case of Cambridge Analytica, but Facebook is a system that is a feedback loop that is designed to keep users as engaged as long as possible, which means keeping them addicted.

    And so content on Facebook is arrayed in such fashion as to keep people addicted. So he's not feeding people information based on what they share. He's not feeding it based on what's good for them or good for democracy. He's feeding it based on what will keep them addicted.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    He's also feeding it based on some of the data that they do track.

  • Franklin Foer:

    Exactly.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    He was asked specifically about that. We saw one of those moments in Lisa's report just now, basically how and when and where his platform collects data from their users.

    What did you make of how he handled those specific questions?

  • Franklin Foer:

    I thought he was pretty effective in dealing with the senators.

    And I think we were at a moment where senators, a lot of the senators are — if we're frank, they're older. They're not necessarily Facebook's core demographic, or they're senators who are busy who are not necessarily Facebook power users, so they didn't understand the system.

    And so when it came to pressing Zuckerberg on a lot of the questions about the collection of data, I think Zuckerberg was reasonably effective in pushing them away, but I think in ways that were ultimately a bit disingenuous.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    There's another specific question, which a few of the senators zeroed in there, what they knew and when and how they shared it. They knew back in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had improperly shared data.

    They banned them. They deleted — or ask them to delete the data. But they didn't tell their users and they didn't report it to the FTC.

    Should they have? How do you think Zuckerberg handled those questions today?

  • Franklin Foer:

    I think that they should have.

    And I think that part of the issue is when we step become and you look at these questions, the Cambridge Analytica questions, the questions of giving access of data to third-party developers, and the questions about Facebook being careless in their handling of this precious cargo, really these are systematic problems that Facebook has.

    And so this was one glaring example of Facebook screwing up. Zuckerberg admitted failure. But really it's part of a systematic failure.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    Along those same lines, there is an inherent business model tension. Right?

  • Franklin Foer:

    Exactly. Yes.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    They're pledging to protect the data. At the same time, their business model is built on profiting from it. Can people trust them on that moving forward?

  • Franklin Foer:

    Right. Exactly.

    Their business model is always about hijacking, commandeering as much of the attention of their users as possible. And so they're always going to be collecting as much data as possible in order to keep people's attention for as long as possible, and then to also allow advertisers to target that attention as much as possible.

    And so I don't see how they are ever going to escape this kind of arms race that they're in, where they are going to have to keep pushing the boundaries of surveillance on their users.

  • Amma Nawaz:

    Franklin Foer, thanks for being here.

  • Franklin Foer:

    Thank you so much.

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