The mood in the room during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees was that of abject boredom. The Facebook CEO and his prep team seem to have scripted his answers so well that there were more occasions for laughter than for gasps.
About half of the audience in the public gallery kept their eyes trained on their phones. The Capitol police took several precautions to prevent outbursts from protesters, confiscating signs reading “Stop Corporate Spying” and “Like us on facebook” from members of Code Pink, though they were allowed to keep their oversized, neon-colored eyeglasses. The bespectacled activists left within an hour, replaced by a group of people in white T-shirts with the hashtag #DeleteFacebook.
One person dressed up as a “Russian troll,” donning a tall blue and green wig that resembled the hair of a Troll Doll and a Russian flag neckerchief. A man in a bright red shirt reading “This whistleblower was framed into Russian spy” and an American flag bandana entered the room and tried to sit near the front, but he abruptly left when the officers wouldn’t let him.
Many of the 44 senators themselves, when not asking questions, seemed to be giving Zuckerberg minimal attention. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spent most of the hearing either slumped in his chair, almost horizontal to the floor, or absent from the proceedings. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson drifted in and out of the room, at one point walking back to their seats together while engaging in chummy conversation over a cup of coffee.
After the first break, most of the senators who had already asked questions elected not to return, and the entire bottom row of daises was entirely empty for much of the remaining time. (To be fair, members of Congress often only attend only portions of a hearing.) In the public gallery, several rows of chairs were also left empty by the final stretch, which was surprising as the line to get into the hearing once stretched through the hall and down the stairs.
Only a few moments elicited shock from the crowd, such as Zuckerberg informing Florida Sen. Bill Nelson that the company would not offer a paid version of the platform that does not collect data. Overall, however, the five-minute limit for each senator’s line of questioning was more conducive to quick jokes than serious cross examination. The result: The hearing felt strangely lighthearted given the gravity of the issues at hand. At time of publication, about four hours since the hearing began, eight senators are still waiting to ask questions. The safe money is on things not getting any more exciting.