Most congressional day-to-day happenings don't get a tremendous amount of publicity, but they almost certainly will this week. For the first time, Facebook CEO and tech megastar Mark Zuckerberg will testify in Congress before the House and the Senate after revelations that a dizzying number of Facebook users' data was unknowingly accessed and sold for political purposes.
Shortly after President Trump's inauguration, news came to light that millions of Facebook users had seen political propaganda ads purchased by Russian-backed accounts. Following a highly divisive election where the result shocked most pundits and pollsters, that news did not go over well with a large swath of Americans — including many of the ones who work on Capitol Hill.
Since then, there's been a slow but steady drip of bad news for Facebook, as Josh Constine explained at Tech Crunch. Leaks from company insiders — about questionable ad targeting to teenagers, the company's possible openness to censoring content in China, and sensitive information released about in-the-works product development — have compromised Facebook's morale.
But the tipping point likely came in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is one reason Zuckerberg will be in D.C. this week. The data analysis company worked for Trump's campaign during the 2016 election, and they managed to access information on Facebook users that many argue never should have left the site.
Cambridge Analytica was co-founded by former Trump adviser and campaign chairman Steve Bannon, who funded the "data-driven campaigns" operation with money from Republican big spenders Rebekah and Robert Mercer, Vox explained. While working for Cambridge Analytica, a Russian American researcher named Alexsandr Kogan developed an app-by-way-of-quiz called "thisisyourdigitallife" — except it wasn't just a quiz, it was a data-retrieving goldmine.
Kogan's app scraped the personal information of Facebook users who downloaded it, which the social media company allowed at the time. According to a New York Times report, Kogan told Facebook he was using that info for academic purposes, though Facebook appears to have failed to verify that claim. And the app went even further, gathering personal stats on all the friends of each downloader, which resulted in a repository of data from up to 87 million Facebook users.
Then, during the 2016 election, after working briefly on Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz's ultimately failed presidential bids, Cambridge Analytica went to work — with that Facebook information on hand — for the Trump's campaign.
In a statement on the hearing's purpose, Sen. John Thune noted that Facebook "plays a critical role" in the social lives of millions of Americans. According to Thune, the Senate's questions to Zuckerberg will focus on "Facebook's role in our democracy, bad actors using the platform, and user privacy."
It's a sign of how the times may be a'changing. In the past, Washington has had a cozy relationship with Silicon Valley. As Maya Kosoff outlined at Vanity Fair in 2016, tech companies and high-profile government officials back then were in what appeared to be a state of happy co-dependency. Big names from President Obama's administration — including David Pflouffe, Jay Carney, and Jim Messina — all had taken jobs with tech companies. For its part, Silicon Valley shelled out $49 million on lobbying efforts alone in 2016.
But the mood in D.C. has turned decidedly tech-skeptical since the presidential election, and the company facing the most heat is undoubtedly Facebook. In a poll conducted by The Verge in late 2017, Facebook was the least trusted of the "Big Five" tech companies, with Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon all out-ranking Zuckerberg's social media behemoth.
Zuckerberg will go into Tuesday's Senate testimony with huge stakes riding on his performance. It remains to be seen if he can turn a critical Congress to his side — to say nothing of the millions of American users his company wants to keep on board.