US Senators take on social media titan

By Thao Nguyen 
Contributing Writer

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, attended a U.S. Senate committee hearing April 10 to explain why Facebook sells its users data to advertisers.

Sam Govea, executive dean of social science at Brookhaven College, said: “It’s always interesting that students don’t realize that these free services are not really free. They’re taking something from you to give you a service. … I think it’s difficult for students to understand that companies don’t have their best interests at heart that they’re not thinking about them, they’re thinking about their company.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg posted on Facebook prior to the hearing, addressing mistakes and pledging improvement to user-data policies. “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg wrote.

During the hearing, Zuckerberg remained calm and used his knowledge of his product and technology to answer questions from the senators, according to CNN. However, the senators asked questions which showed they had no clue how Facebook works or how technology works. 

Sen. Orin Hatch asked, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

Zuckerberg said Facebook runs ads.

Instead of addressing how Facebook abuses its users’ data, the senators focused on other questions.

During the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson complained about seeing chocolate ads after he messaged his friends on Facebook about chocolate. “What if I don’t want to receive those commercial advertisements?” he said.

The conversation continued to deviate from the main topic as senators asked questions to address their concerns. 

“If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”

Adrienne Gathman, a Brookhaven government professor, said, “I think part of the coming in there and asking questions that didn’t necessarily hit on what they should have been talking about was to play politics to turn the conversation away from what was happening because this Cambridge Analytica is tied up with certain political movements, and so you want to turn the conversation away from them being tied to those political movements because then it might hurt your reputation.” Gathman said the senators wanted to turn the conversation away from being discussed.

According to The Washington Post, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign paid more than $750,000 to Cambridge Analytica. The payments were classified as web service and donor modeling. Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica CEO, said the company was involved in 44 U.S. political races in 2014, according to The Washington Post. 

Gathman said Cruz’s question was about Facebook’s bias against Republican and conservative movements, which the hearing was not about. But he tried to frame a conversation he wanted to have, she said.

Senators usually have more time to research before a hearing, Gathman said. They also have interest groups to help provide them with information they need. “The Facebook hearing was planned within a week or two and to get all the information you need on a topic with that amount of time is difficult,” she said.

“I’m optimistic that with other things [senators] have more time to get the information and really make their decisions – at least that’s my hope,” Gathman said.

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