Mark Zuckerberg’s Washington tour this week represents a new approach to politics for him: low-key, closed-door but highly solicitous of the most important players in town.
Facebook’s CEO had previously addressed concerns about privacy and social media through acts of public contrition and limited engagement with Congress or the White House. Zuckerberg’s last appearance in the nation’s capital was a contentious congressional hearing in April 2018.
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This time, the social media giant’s founder — clad in a suit and tie, saying nothing to reporters — spent three days engaged in quiet diplomacy with members of Congress and President Donald Trump. That included a final day of private meetings on Friday, including with lawmakers pursuing antitrust investigations of the tech industry and others drafting legislation to restrict how websites use consumer data.
The personal touch seemed to resonate with some members, though others remained critical of the industry. While it wasn’t quite clear what Zuckerberg accomplished on the host of questions Facebook faces on issues like user privacy, anti-competitive behavior, Russian election interference and the company’s plans for a cryptocurrency, the mood music was certainly different.
“I think what he gave us today was some honest discussion,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also walked away Friday with praise for the mogul’s approach.
Trump said nothing about his meeting Thursday with Zuckerberg, beyond calling it “nice” in a tweet that showed the two shaking hands in the Oval Office.
Some lawmakers were not impressed by the CEO’s efforts.
“I don’t think he’s got a lot of credibility,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is active on tech issues but did not meet with Zuckerberg. “He’s lied repeatedly to the American people, for example, about privacy policies.”
Another notable omission on Zuckerberg’s congressional schedule was Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had some harsh words for Facebook earlier this year after it refused to remove a doctored video that falsely portrayed her slurring her words.
The stakes have risen for Facebook since Zuckerberg testified last year — among other things, it now faces an array of federal and state antitrust investigations into its business practices. The company also has much to lose if Congress manages to pass federal privacy legislation or erodes the 1996 law that shields internet platforms from litigation over user-posted content. At the same time, Facebook is seeking to overcome resistance in Washington over its plans to launch a digital currency, Libra.
Even some of the company’s biggest congressional critics said Zuckerberg’s one-on-one discussions were more effective than his public testimony, which featured a series of tense exchanges between the CEO and lawmakers.
“I think we share one view, which is that those hearings informed no one and are a zoo,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “If you want to have a real exchange of views, you have to have a bunch of sit-down conversations and not creating a context where every member of Congress is trying to have their viral moment.”
A former D.C.-based Facebook official said the company has come to appreciate in recent years how much Washington politicians enjoy receiving deference from a famous Silicon Valley billionaire. Facebook understands the political goodwill it can gain by having Zuckerberg ask to visit with lawmakers and then turn up for those meetings not in a T-shirt but crisp suit and tie, the former official said.
“It certainly plays to their egos,” said the person, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a past employer. “What a personal appearance like that signals can help Facebook out enormously.“
The former official said that while this week’s Hill visits provided a chance to build relationships with the lawmakers who oversee the tech industry, Zuckerberg’s Oval Office sit-down was more about pure optics.
“Trump is in a different category,” the former official said. “It’s, ‘We’re going to visit him, we’re going to call him Mr. President, we’ll kiss the ring, we’ll give him the photo op and it will stroke his ego.’” Added the source: “Jack Dorsey did it. Sundar Pichai did it. Tim Cook does it,” a reference to CEOs of Twitter, Google and Apple, respectively.
Despite the president’s past scathing criticisms of Facebook, including his accusations that the social network is “anti-Trump,” both he and the company walked away from the encounter with positive messages. A Facebook spokesperson called it a “a good, constructive meeting.”
Even so, Zuckerberg’s D.C. foray was not without incident.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who as a state attorney general launched an investigation into Facebook’s data practices, tore into the company during a widely covered news conference following his meeting with Zuckerberg on Thursday. Hawley said he challenged the Facebook chief to sell off two of the company’s biggest acquisitions — WhatsApp and Instagram — adding that Zuckerberg was “not receptive to those suggestions.”
Zuckerberg also took heat during a Wednesday dinner from senators on the company’s approach to privacy, competition and election security, according to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who organized the gathering. Even so, Warner said the engagement was a step in the right direction.
“I think it was important for him to hear not just from some of the members who have been active on these issues, but other members who are not,” he said.
Warner has shown just how important it is for tech giants to engage with Congress. As vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was one of the panel leaders who left an empty chair for Google at a witness table last September, to protest the company not sending a CEO-level representative to a hearing on Russian election interference.
According to Schatz, Zuckerberg’s D.C. visit was preceded by previous under-the-radar efforts to charm members of Congress. The Hawaii senator said he met with the Facebook CEO in Honolulu over the August congressional recess, and shared concerns about Zuckerberg’s plan to launch the Libra cryptocurrency.
Schatz said that during the August meeting, he told Zuckerberg that tech companies are trying to be “too clever” in their calls for data privacy legislation that stops short of more sweeping reform. “They just need to get totally behind it as opposed to acting as though they have leverage in this situation,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said he also met with Zuckerberg in recent weeks, saying the two discussed data privacy, online content and election interference on social media. And in July, the Facebook CEO dialed up Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who has led efforts to craft a bipartisan privacy bill, to discuss that issue, Wicker said.
“The hearings are a show. Behind closed doors, you have a real discussion, which I think often starts with Facebook having to educate members how their platform actually works,” said Alex Conant, former press secretary to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and now a partner at the public affairs consulting firm Firehouse Strategies.
Zuckerberg’s outreach this week also included Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is negotiating a privacy bill with Wicker; House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has called on the company to step up its fight against election disinformation; and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and antitrust subcommittee chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who are leading the House’s bipartisan antitrust probe into the tech sector.