In a rare jaunt to the nation’s capital, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg entered Washington’s buzzing hornets’ nest as it swarms his massive company with regulatory threats—some all buzz, some that could sting.
So far, one fairly specific threat materialized from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), an emerging Big Tech critic who’s amplifying some of the right’s favorite attacks against Silicon Valley’s business elite. In a private meeting with Zuckerberg, Hawley called for Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the company’s roomiest lifeboats for weathering its current corporate storms.
Hawley, one of a handful of lawmakers who have been whipping up cries of anti-conservative censorship, tweeted on Thursday that he “had a frank conversation” with Zuckerberg. He appears to have explicitly asked Facebook’s top executive to sell the two companies, in addition to demanding that the company conduct a third-party audit on conservative censorship to his liking. “He said no to both,” Hawley added.
Zuckerberg’s trip came just a day after a lesser Facebook evangelist defended the company in a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, this one on social media’s responsibility to grapple with mass violence and extremism.
Facebook and its relative peer platforms YouTube and Twitter continue to face scrutiny as lawmakers and the public come to terms with the dark side of huge, unwieldy platforms—the same platforms that swelled to incredible size, glutted on their early unconditional positive regard among users.
Unlike his last high-profile appearance, Zuckerberg made the rounds behind the scenes on this week’s trip. On Wednesday night, he dined with a handful of senators in a gathering organized by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). According to Warner’s office, the conversation was wide-ranging, addressing everything from election security and consumer privacy to how to “encourage competition in the social media space”—a buffet of issues that sums up Facebook’s growing headache on the Hill.
The last time Zuckerberg visited the lion’s den was last year, during the fallout over the company’s back-to-back-to-back privacy scandals. Over the course of a terse testimony, the Facebook founder deflected attacks from lawmakers on the left and the right, successfully hewing close to his prepared comments and looping back through established talking points with the discipline and poise of a Big Tobacco executive.
If the threats are empty is anyone’s guess. Republicans and Democrats have shown a rare sense of bipartisanship in using Facebook as a punching bag, even if their motivations couldn’t be more different.
Hawley’s call for Facebook to surrender WhatsApp and Instagram has unlikely echoes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign plan to unwind the company’s two largest acquisitions—a perceived existential threat for a company not accustomed to being told “no.”