Mark Zuckerberg's livestreamed QnA session following audio leak was little more than a PR stunt

Rather than let the pall of the audio leak linger longer, Zuckerberg responded promptly with a PR stunt.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in a bit of soup this week when a leaked audio file of his question and answer session at an internal Facebook meeting was published online. He was heard stating how he would have no option but to sue the US government if Senator Elizabeth Warren was elected as President and she went ahead with the breaking up of Facebook.

In a surprise move last night, Zuckerberg decided to live-stream an "internal" Q&A session with his employees on Facebook.

The scoop by The Verge really shone a light on what goes on in the mind of one of the most shrewd social media founders of our generation when he is speaking no-holds-barred to his team. Zuckerberg spoke at length about the regulation and possible breakup of Facebook, his plans for Libra, how he views TikTok from a competitor's perspective (this was the most alarming part, he compared TikTok to Instagram's Explore feed), defending the fact that he wants to keep complete control of Facebook and much more.

"We care about our country and want to work with our government to do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight," said Zuckerberg referring to Warren's idea of breaking up Facebook. To this Warren replied, "What would really 'suck' is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy."

 Mark Zuckerbergs livestreamed QnA session following audio leak was little more than a PR stunt

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Reuters

Yesterday, Zuckerberg had a weekly Q&A with his team and in an unprecedented move, he live-streamed the entire video up on his page. This is certainly a response to The Verge's leaked report, which also puts a question mark on the "code of silence" that was a given among Facebook employees. Zuckerberg claims to do internal weekly meetings with his teams regularly, where they can ask him questions freely. Never had any content from these internal meetings leaked to the media. Something in the Facebook culture has cracked for sure.

So was this live session Zuckerberg's way of doing damage control? Or did he genuinely respond to critical questions?

Let's dive into the major talking points from this internal meeting.

Setting the stage: "We were quite shocked!"

Zuckerberg almost started off his address as though he was addressing the media and not his employees, by reiterating why he does these weekly meetings. He was confident that the audio leaked from an intern Q&A session that he had done. Zuckerberg was appalled at the breach of trust and that was evident from his tone.

"This week we had this pretty disappointing event. We have been doing this Q&A for over 10 years and I am super open and share pretty much everything that's on my mind. The deal is we will keep it internal," said Zuckerberg. The Facebook team was shocked by this breach of trust, he said.

Just like his keynote addresses, Zuckerberg tried to be self-deprecating by admitting how he has heard feedback on his almost 'robotic' tone during interviews. "It's like... where do you go to plug yourself in at night or charge?" Except that this time around he did generate a lot of laughter among his employee audience while telling them he had nothing to lose by live-streaming the Q&A.

At the outset, Zuckerberg claimed that no private data and numbers would be shared. He also said that he couldn't promise if future sessions would be streamed live.

Within three minutes it was made quite evident that this live QnA session was not going to be the no-holds-barred meeting Zuckerberg generally has with his employees.

Clearly, there's a high chance that a lot of the questions may already be scripted, even though Zuckerberg claims otherwise. But we all know how smart he is. Since it's Facebook we are talking about here, it is pertinent we hear what Zuckerberg has to say. There also was a guest appearance by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on a question around businesses associated with Facebook.

Four key areas of focus

Before taking questions from his employees, Zuckerberg laid down the four key focus areas that Facebook would be working on.

  1. Focus on privacy and security
  2. Building qualitatively new experiences, delivering new things
  3. Continuing to build on the momentum of businesses and creating jobs
  4. Being more transparent

Zuckerberg tried to justify the live-streaming of this session with the fourth priority of being more transparent. But just a few moments ago he had said that he wouldn't make any promises if future sessions would be live-streamed. I get it, having a few townhalls here and there in the public sphere and many internal meetings which should be private is a healthy operating procedure. But calling this damage-control internal Q&A session an act of 'being more transparent' sounds quite hollow.

Anyway, moving on.

On Elizabeth Warren: "Let's not antagonise her"

US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Reuters

US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Reuters

On being asked about the cold war with Warren and how Facebook would ensure neutrality when it came to her (who uses Facebook's ad tool, like other politicians), Zuckerberg had a smirk on his face. "Let's not antagonise her more," said Zuckerberg. He then went on to say explain that he would did not have a problem with Warren personally, but with her proposal.

"The value that we care about is allowing people to express themselves and help bring them together. Part of what I worry about is that there are these norms about democracy and expression, which are so deeply rooted, that in order for a society to work we need to be able to put other people's ability to express what is important to them above our getting our preferences all the time. To me, that's what we are here to do. There is clearly a trend where I see that people are more willing to sacrifice other people's ability to talk and censor other people because they view that their policy outcome will be of higher priority, than respecting each others ability to speak," said Zuckerberg elaborating on his fundamental disagreements with Warren. "I would rather have someone get elected, even if I disagree with them on everything, which isn't even the case here, than not give them the ability to say what they think."

This seemed like a better thought out and measured response than the threat of suing the government which was heard in the leaked audio recording. It's almost like he had prepared this response for a media query. Smart, very smart.

On balancing privacy and safety, EU court judgement, and more

Zuckerberg touched upon Attorney General Barr's open letter which calls for Facebook and other tech giants to provide law enforcement with a backdoor to encrypted apps, so as to be able to nab criminals indulging in activities such as child exploitation, terrorism, drug dealing, among others. Zuckerberg said that it was important to help law enforcement agencies, but not at the cost of breaking encryption which provides a lot of people with a safe way to communicate.

"Clearly, privacy has been a huge theme for the company. It's an area where we are actively working to make progress. We are really proud of the end to end encryption on WhatsApp that we have rolled out globally. We would like to bring our other systems up to the same level. We get that there are real concerns to doing that," said Zuckerberg while addressing how the team is working to push out the bad actors by detecting patterns of bad activity upstream, by linking accounts together. For instance, a bad actor on Facebook could have his or her WhatsApp account blocked, despite not knowing what he or she does on WhatsApp as it's encrypted.

Just yesterday, there were reports about how the EU's top court ruled that national courts in Europe could order online platforms such as Facebook to remove defamatory content worldwide. This means that one country's speech laws could be applied to another. Zuckerberg wasn't too pleased with this judgement, saying that it could set wrong precedents as it could stem the freedom of expression on its platform. He said that Facebook would fight this ruling and get more clarity on it.

"This is going to be something that I would imagine we and other services will be litigating and basically trying to get to clarity on what this means over a long period of time," Zuckerberg said.

Instagram Threads is a good example of privacy

Instagram Threads.

Instagram Threads.

Zuckerberg spoke about the newly launched Instagram breakaway product called Threads, a messaging app for communicating with your close friends. In his own words, here's how Zuckerberg described Threads, "Threads is focussed on communicating with close friends. It's trying to be a tool so that you can more easily than any other app out there today, be able to take a photo, send it to a close friend in a tap or two. Have it be a rich, but private experience. I am just excited to have it out there."

If you think that's sound similar to any other messaging app out there, such as Snapchat, Telegram or even WhatsApp and Instagram (Direct Message), then I wouldn't blame you. Zuckerberg had clearly stated in his vision plan, published earlier this year, that he wanted to merge messaging (from different Facebook apps) and make it private. Creating another messaging app on top of that 'for close friends' sounds confusing in this regard.

Response to Facebook Dating has been encouraging

Facebook Dating is Facebook's response to Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and the many other dating apps out there. Zuckerberg said that the response to the new service has been great.

"Typically what we are trying to do is testing things in different places so that we can get a sense of how it works. We rolled out Dating in 18 countries and worked on it for a year. We were tuning the product so that it really fits the need of users and was doing the job that people wanted to do," said Zuckerberg adding that 80 percent of people who use Facebook Dating used it regularly. No hard numbers were shared as the event was live-streamed.

Facebook Dating.

Facebook Dating.

Should billionaires exist?

This was one zany question that came up in the hour-long session. On being asked about Senator Bernie Sander's tweet that said billionaires should not exist, Zuckerberg said that he knew where it was coming from.

"I don't know that I have an exact threshold on what amount of money someone should have but on some level, no one deserves to have that much money," said Zuckerberg to applause. But then in the next instance, he plugged the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation, which is his philanthropic venture with his wife stating how they had pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook share value over their lifetime.

Finding the right balance between encryption and safety

A report in The New York Times last Sunday spoke about the proliferation of child sexual abuse and child exploitation photos and videos being shared on social media platforms. Messenger was one platform that was named in the report. An employee asked Zuckerberg, "What actions can we take as a company to counter the impact that encryption will have on the proliferation of this material, related to child sexual abuse?"

Zuckerberg mentioned some of the learnings from Facebook's research on dealing with issues related to election integrity. "What we have learned is that the content sometimes is not very important but the patterns of activities are. And you can do that even in encrypted systems. But having the ability to look at the content is a useful signal. We are working on this," said Zuckerberg. He mentioned the fact that Facebook had sent close to 12 million reports to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children  (NICMEC), which also mentioned the NYT report, also touching on the fact that a lot of abuse-related cases happen offline, many times in situations where the victim knows the perpetrator. He did promise to do more to ensure that adults who were not related to children were prevented from getting in touch with them online. But he said that end-to-end encryption would remain.

"Unlike other services such as iMessage, we have ensured we highlight if anything happens on our services. We will invest more in identifying patterns of activities, especially with bad actors sharing child pornography and other illegal material. Having said that, we would still stand by end-to-end encryption. These are some of the hardest decisions that we have to make. What I can commit to before moving to end-to-end encryption is that we will be open to working with law enforcement, NICMEC and others around the world to mitigate this as best as we can," said Zuckerberg.

Bottom line: A good damage-control exercise

All in all, I think this Facebook live Q&A session with his employees was quite a well-conducted damage-control exercise. Instead of letting the audio leaks linger online, Zuckerberg responded promptly, standing by everything he said in the leaked audio. "Maybe I said it in a little bit more unfiltered of a way than I would externally, but fundamentally we believe everything that we said that was in there," said Zuckerberg at the start of this session.

Unlike the juicy audio leak where a lot of controversial topics were discussed, this live Q&A session sounded a lot like Zuckerberg's US Senate hearing, where he kept making promises, perhaps empty ones, to keep working harder and doing more. Zuckerberg tried to keep away from making any controversial statement here. It was obvious to anyone watching the session that Zuckerberg was in his 'media-interview' avatar. The questions being asked were also framed in such a way that Zuckerberg would find a way out. For instance, on the question of billionaires, Zuckerberg nicely segued it into how being a billionaire made you better at philanthropy (well, almost).

There were barely any headline-grabbing announcements made. He also smartly used the Warren question to offer an olive branch to her and at the same time making himself sound like a benevolent being by letting her use his platform to call him out. Two segments during the internal Q&A revolved around celebrating employees who had completed five years and ten years, and another was highlighting the engineers or teams who had solved a small issue. Now there's no way to know if this is a regular feature, but Zuckerberg got to show Team Facebook's human side in this session — another well-executed attempt at generating good PR.

The response to what could have ballooned as a damaging leak has been swift and measured. Of course, the audio leak is nothing compared to Cambridge Analytica or the US presidential elections. There really wasn't any damage to Facebook stock following the leak, and this latest dent on Facebook's already battered reputation almost passed unnoticed.

Regardless, whether this attempt at being transparent changes anything or not, only time will tell.

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