‘Christ, this guy has the fate of European democracy in his hands’: Lawmakers are worried Mark Zuckerberg still doesn’t understand Facebook’s massive power

Mark Zuckerberg at the European Parliament on Tuesday.

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Mark Zuckerberg at the European Parliament on Tuesday.
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Yves Herman/Reuters

  • Mark Zuckerberg appeared before European lawmakers on Tuesday to explain his company’s privacy scandals, its attitude toward regulation, and its role in election interference.
  • It didn’t go too well.
  • Lawmakers attending and watching the session said they were extremely worried about how Facebook could influence future elections.
  • They said Russian groups were highly practiced at disinformation and that Facebook needed to understand how its platform affected elections.
  • Facebook has promised better transparency around political advertising on its platform, but foreign groups have already interfered in the US election as well as Ireland’s abortion referendum.

Facebook has the power to influence democratic processes around the world, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no idea how to handle it.

That’s the worry for lawmakers after Zuckerberg appeared before European Parliament politicians in Brussels late on Tuesday. He was there to answer questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, user privacy, and election interference. But he avoided giving detailed answers, thanks to the limited format of the questioning.

Molly Scott Cato, a British MEP for the Green Party, tuned into Zuckerberg’s hearing on Tuesday. She was also involved in coming up with questions for the Greens’ representative at Zuckerberg’s hearing, Philippe Lamberts.

“I watched [Zuckerberg] walk in and he looked pretty scared,” she told Business Insider. “He’s totally out of his depth – he talks about setting Facebook up in college with this homey story and I’m, like, ‘Christ, this guy has the fate of European democracy in his hands and he doesn’t know what to do.'”

Mark Zuckerberg as he arrived at the European Parliament on Tuesday.

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Mark Zuckerberg as he arrived at the European Parliament on Tuesday.
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Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Scott Cato said she was sympathetic to Zuckerberg, whom she described as still young, but added that he had to accept that Facebook’s influence goes considerably beyond its shareholders.

For Scott Cato, examples like Russian actors buying up ads to influence the US presidential elections and the Brexit vote, and US and Canadian pro-life groups trying to influence Ireland’s abortion referendum, are more worrying than the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook said 126 million Americans might have seen ads bought by Russian groups during the US election. In the UK, it said that Russian groups spent just $1 on ads relating to Brexit, but British politicians are skeptical of the company’s findings. And in Ireland, Facebook had to bar foreign groups buying ads to influence the country’s referendum on whether to allow abortion.

“The threat to democracy is important,” Scott Cato said.

Claude Moraes, another British MEP who chairs Europe’s civil-liberties committee, will be grilling another Facebook executive at a second open hearing, possibly this week.

He told Business Insider on Friday: “The EU and Parliament are quite strong on this because we have lots of countries with lots of elections, and lots of concerns about political interference.”

Both Cato and Moraes pointed to disinformation campaigns carried out by Russia in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. That involved Russia using state-friendly-media channels like Sputnik and Russia Today to spread false news about Ukraine in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Trolls also used Facebook to push out Ukrainian activists.

During his apology tour before the media and US and European politicians, Zuckerberg has acknowledged Facebook’s role in the spread of fake news and misinformation. The company said it is trying out a “view ads” tool that shows who has spent money on political ads and will, in the UK, place all political ads in a searchable archive. Historically it has been difficult to see that highly targeted political ads even exist.

But Lamberts, the Green MEP who questioned Mark Zuckerberg directly on Tuesday, said the Facebook CEO hadn’t offered sufficient reassurances to Europe about political transparency.

“This hearing failed to meet our expectations,” the Greens said in a statement. “Mark Zuckerberg made a lot of vague promises. All 12 representatives of the European Parliament asked precise questions but Zuckerberg didn’t answer any of them precisely.

“A simple apology to European Facebook users is not enough. We want Facebook to put measures in place to make advertising more transparent and prevent misuse of personal data.”

Scott Cato said Zuckerberg could either go down in history as the man who let Putin “trash” democratic processes or the man who built a social network for the wider good. “It’s very frightening to think about,” she said.