The integrity of our future elections depends on structural reforms to how Facebook is allowed to operate
Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the European parliament in Brussels appeared to hold the company accountable to the more than 500 million people represented by 28 countries in the EU, but was this just an optical illusion?
In fact, only a small group of MEPs spoke with him, and they had almost no time to prepare. The format allowed Zuckerberg to cherrypick his responses rather than reply to each individual point. As a former Google design ethicist who spent last week in Brussels with EU policymakers, I question whether this is real accountability or just a minimal concession.
Zuckerberg’s EU hearing, originally to be in private but ultimately livestreamed after public uproar, excluded many EU officials with the deepest understanding of technology and social media. He accepted the invitation just six days in advance and before a public holiday that left Brussels empty from Friday until just before Tuesday’s hearings. It’s a familiar pattern – Congress was on recess in the two weeks before Zuckerberg’s testimony in the US, with little time to prepare.
Facebook has repeatedly appeared to treat these issues as a crisis of PR, not of democratic integrity, making mostly the small changes needed to avoid further scrutiny when the real solution to the problems at hand involves deep, structural changes to Facebook’s thinking and design, which enabled these problems in the first place.
It should have been a historic moment, this first time that Zuckerberg appeared in the EU to answer questions in a democratic process. He likely won’t visit again. Yet Facebook will continue to powerfully influence the elections, mental health and culture of EU nations. Ireland is already in the grip of controversy over foreign actors’ Facebook ads in its forthcoming abortion referendum. The UK parliament has repeatedly asked for him to testify in its continuing inquiry into the Brexit referendum and Cambridge Analytica, but he has no plans to do so – yet many questions still need an answer from the Facebook boss.


Facebook affects the public health and elections of more than 180 countries, yet has answered to the public only where the media has been loudest. In lesser-reported countries like Sri Lanka, where fake news on Facebook has unintentionally amplified violence, Facebook’s response has been criticised as insufficient. What will you change to ensure greater accountability to democratic governments?

Levels of harm