Once upon a time, a crude TV cartoon was seen as the thing that would destroy America. Let us pause here in today’s climate of tweeted threats to hostile nations from the White House to reflect on a simpler time.
Back then, the MTV program Beavis and Butt-head and its supposed impact on impressionable youth had its time in the congressional barrel. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., argued that broadcasters of offensive programming would make adjustments based on pressure.
“We’ve got this — what is it? — Buffcoat and Beaver or Beaver and something else. . . . I haven’t seen it, I don’t watch it, but whatever it is, it was at 7 o’clock (p.m.) — Buffcoat — and they put it on now at 10:30, I think,” Hollings said.
No one was surprised to learn the 71-year-old chairman of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee had never seen the raunchy Beavis and Butt-head. The mangling of the program’s title, though, became a running joke and an illustration that D.C. lawmakers were clueless in matters of pop culture.
That was back in 1993, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was 9 years old.
Last week, Zuckerberg took his turn in the barrel thanks to a pair of congressional hearings, one in front of the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees on Tuesday and the other on Wednesday before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The stakes were much higher than the cartoon antics of a couple of violent and vulgar headbangers. Zuckerberg was on Capitol Hill to answer questions about his social media company’s lax safeguards over user privacy and how the platform was used during the 2016 presidential campaign to spread false information posing as news stories.
This is important stuff, vital to the healthy functioning of our democracy, yet some of the questions posed by lawmakers displayed a lack of first-hand insight into how Facebook works.
“If [Facebook is free to users], how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Zuckerberg.
“Senator, we run ads,” replied Zuckerberg, whose tone seemed to indicate he wasn’t sure if there might be something more to the question.
Seemingly unaware of the finer points of tech, some lawmakers took the relational route.
“My son Charlie, who’s 13, is dedicated to Instagram, so he’d want to be sure I mention him while I was here with you,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said.
“I’ve got 4,900 friends on my Facebook page. I delete the haters and save room for family members and true friends on my personal page,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said.
“A lot of these members frankly aren’t on social media and maybe don’t have experience with social media,” James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, told tech news site CNET. “You need to experience the platform to understand what you’re talking about if you do want to challenge the validity of what the company’s doing.”
That explains why The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said last week, “Zuckerberg has already experienced the worst punishment of all: he had to spend four hours explaining Facebook to senior citizens.”
Yet, the most striking line of questioning dealt with a legend about clandestine eavesdropping on Americans via the microphones on their smartphones.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., got right to the point: “Yes or no: Does Facebook use audio obtained from mobile devices to enrich personal information about its users?”
That would be a no, Zuckerberg said.
At the following day’s hearing, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., pressed the point with Zuckerberg, citing instances when the subjects of casual conversations among his family later turned up in Facebook ads.
“My understanding is that a lot of these cases that you’re talking about are a coincidence,” Zuckerberg said.
Bucshon wasn’t satisfied. He said, “If you’re not listening to us on the phone, who is?”
Just a crazy theory, but maybe it’s Buffcoat and Beaver.