Calling BS: Sen. Thom Tillis’ grandstanding

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Sen. Thom Tillis grills Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — well, not exactly. (screen grab)

The conventional idea behind congressional hearings is that our august representatives are supposed to ask probing questions to get to the bottom of serious problems and hold the powerful accountable.

Not much of either transpired during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress on Tuesday. First, some of the more senior members needed a basic primer on social media to even make the most rudimentary inquiry into Facebook’s practices.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the 84-year-old Republican from Utah who chairs the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force — yes, seriously — memorably asked Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Appearing baffled and likely trying decipher whether Hatch was kidding with him and then trying to figure out a way to not completely mock and humiliate his interlocutor, Zuckerberg took a full three seconds to compose his answer: “Senator, we run ads.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), on the other hand, used his five minutes to show off how much he knows about tech, managing to ask not a single question.

“I’ve worked in [a] data-analytics practice for a good part of my career, and for anybody to pretend that Cambridge Analytica was the first person to exploit data clearly hasn’t worked in the data-analytics field,” Tillis said as Zuckerberg pretended to be impressed, “so when you go back and do your research on Cambridge Analytica, I would personally appreciate it if you would start back from the first known high-profile national campaign that exploited Facebook data.” (The point of Tillis’ riff was to deflect attention from his own campaign’s utilization of Cambridge Analytica’s services in 2014 to President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.)

While many senators relish dressing down powerful CEOs, Tillis took aim at another quarry: Facebook’s billions of users.

“The one thing I would encourage people to do is go to Facebook — I’m a proud member of Facebook — I just got a post from my sister on this being National Sibling Day — so I’ve connected with four or five of my staff and family members while I was giving you my undivided attention — but go to the privacy tab,” Tillis said. “If you don’t want to share something, don’t share it. This is a free service. Go on there, and say, ‘I don’t want to allow third-party search engines to get into my Facebook page.’ Go in there and say, ‘Only my friends can look at it.’ Go in there and understand what you’re signing up for; it’s a free app.”

Then this little nudge of support:

“I have one question for you: When you were developing this app in your dorm, how many people did you have in your regulatory affairs division? Exactly. So if government takes a heavy-handed approach to fix this problem, then we know very well that the next Facebook, the next thing you’re going to wake up and worry about how you continue to be relevant as the behemoth that you are today is probably not going to happen.”

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