Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing was undoubtedly one of the most culturally relevant testimonies of recent American history. On April 10 and 11, the Facebook CEO sat down with legislators in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in response to the scandal of Cambridge Analytica — the political consulting firm that used the personal data of almost 87 million Facebook accounts in the spreading of Russian propaganda during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Commerce Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Zuckerberg answered questions for 10 hours on Capitol Hill, speaking with over 100 lawmakers and answering over 600 questions in this congressional marathon of testimony. Zuckerberg himself can't take much credit for the fact that his hearing made massive waves on the internet. Elected officials' foolish and painstakingly out-of-touch questions for the Facebook CEO are what's drawing attention.
The list of comical yet shocking questions from Congress is too long to include in its entirety, but that doesn't matter. The nature of Congress' questions is what should cause worry in us — the youthful electorate. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii asked a question about “emailing in Whatsapp,” while Senator Lindsey Graham — through a metaphor about a Ford and a Chevy car — implied that Facebook holds a monopoly within the Internet, complete failing to grasp the reality that a host of other social media platforms (i.e., Twitter and Snapchat) compete with Zuckerberg's. Frank Pallone Jr., one of our own state representatives in New Jersey, was unhappy when Zuckerberg answered questions with more-than-a-one-word answer. While Zuckerberg claimed that the issue was much more complex, Pallone expressed displeasure.
Arguably the most buffoonish sight of both hearings was Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s question about how Facebook could sustain a business model without charging its members anything. After a pause and look of befuddlement, Zuckerberg responded, “Senator, we run ads” to an apparently startled and confused Hatch.
Videos of the hearing have circulated since last week, and the various scenes of elder, non-millennial legislators fumbling through questions surrounding the nature of Facebook and the internet at large have symbolized a very true and shocking reality. Our legislators are completely out of touch with the distinct realities of our ever-changing and multifaceted world. Legislators should put in the time to adapt to the progress of time or we should elect new representatives who exhibit a clear understanding of our world. Through their inability to truly grasp the nuance of technology-laden American life — exemplified in the barrage of questions asked of Mark Zuckerberg - lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demonstrated that while they claim to represent the American people, they don't understand some of the most integral aspects of our society today, namely social media, modern culture, and the Internet as a network and as a community.
The average age in the U.S. Senate is 63. While I do not want to purport any sense of ageism, this reality must be surfaced and discussed. Such a vast disparity negates the true, intended essence of democratic government: to stand for and represent the voices of all peoples. In this rigid divide of old and young made clear by Zuckerberg’s hearings, there exists an inconsistency in how our voices and opinions are being heard and understood in Washington. The internet is arguably the greatest invention of modern history, and the culture, networks, and communities within this ubiquitous part of our lives are not something to be dismissed or half understood by those in power. Without a deep understanding of the nuances and intricate nature of the Internet, there exists a potent risk of ruining and destroying the beauty of this human creation.
It is difficult for legislators to appreciate that which they do not fully understand. And without the deep awareness of what the internet truly entails and represents in our modern world, there will be no moment of pause or second thought before they take steps to restrict, undermine, and ruin the essence of its creative and human magnificence in the foreseeable future. A lack of true consideration and basic comprehension surrounding the Internet could spell the end of the burgeoning creativity, far-reaching communication, and incredibly-accessible information that it provides us today. Albeit a pessimistic view, we could soon lose the freedom and the beauty of the internet because of Washington’s failure to speak its language and hear its necessity.
We — the students of America — are the incoming members of this democratic system, and our voices should be heard, equally and powerfully, among the rest. While we lack in experience, we make up for it with a keen awareness of the times in which we live. As students at Princeton, this awareness manifests itself not only through the intense popularity of technology-driven concentrations such as Computer Science and Operations Research and Financial Engineering, but also through the ubiquitous role that technology holds in our education and daily life. Princeton is not unique in this pattern, instead serving as one ripple among the wave of technologically-focused progress in education and American life. It is undeniable that technology has come to occupy a substantial pillar of our lives, and this societal shift requires constant effort to remain afloat.
While this recent event pertains most directly to the way that Americans access and use the internet, it represents a dynamic that could present destructive outcomes for a host of other issues. A disparity in understanding between legislators and the majority of the American people stands in the way of true democracy and the fulfillment of meaningful government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Members of Congress are elected and propelled to the national stage on the votes and support of us — the people. They are given this opportunity to work for us and to represent our voices in the nation. I have only one message for our Senators and Representatives in Congress: Adapt or lose.
Kaveh Badrei is a sophomore from Houston, Tex. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.