Facebook is engaged in an arms race with Russian actors attempting to sow discord through its platforms, Mark Zuckerberg told senators last night.
In a congressional hearing lasting nearly five hours, the billionaire founder of the world’s biggest social media firm said his number one priority is now preventing the sort of election meddling seen in the 2016 US election from happening again.
“The most important thing I care about right now is making sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he told the committee. “This is an ongoing arms race. As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job is it to try to interfere in elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict.”
Over the course of the hearing, which marked the first of Zuckerberg’s two congressional appearances in as many days, the CEO and chairman faced questions about user privacy, Russian interference, regulation and the firm’s handling of Cambridge Analytica.
While Zuckerberg declined to answer some of the most probing questions – instead asking for permission for his team to “follow up”, he also faced a handful of bizarre queries that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of how Facebook works.
Republican Orrin Hatch asked the chief executive how Facebook makes money if it does not charge users, while Democrat Brian Schatz asked if its advertising is informed by “emailing” carried out through WhatsApp, which uses encrypted messages.
On one of the few occasions Zuckerberg revealed previously unreported information, he said that Robert Mueller – the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the last US election – had interviewed Facebook staff and issued the company with subpoenas.
He added: “Our work with the special counsel is confidential and I want to make sure that in an open session I’m not revealing something that’s confidential.”
Investors reacted favourably to Zuckerberg’s answers, with Facebook’s share price rising 4.5 per cent by the end of the day. In the wake of the session, some critics accused senators of not being tough enough on the firm’s founder. In an article for the Guardian, Zephyr Teachout said the hearing “was designed to fail”.
“It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook after only a few hours in Washington DC,” she wrote. “It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing.”
Writing for NS Tech, the shadow digital minister Liam Byrne said that while the market might have liked Zuckerberg’s performance, “for the public, the alarm bells should be ringing louder than ever”. He added: “The revelations that Facebook is locked in an arms race with Russia […] should be the final nail in the coffin for the permissive environment we’ve allowed for the world’s great tech giants.”
Quizzed on the subject of extra legislation, Zuckerberg accepted that Facebook should be regulated: “My position is not that there should be no regulation… I think the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not.”
As NS Tech revealed last month, Facebook is currently in the process of beefing up its lobbying team in Europe, hiring an additional six policy managers to work out of its London office and build relationships with politicians. While Zuckerberg has conceded that social media sites should be regulated, his team will be keen to ensure that any new rules do not damage the company’s business model.