This post has been updated to reflect comments from lawmakers and Zuckerberg during hearings on Capitol Hill.
Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized — again — this week in remarks on Capitol Hill during hearings about data privacy. “We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry,” Zuckerberg said.
But several lawmakers didn’t hesitate to remind Zuckerberg they’ had heard it all before.
On Wednesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told the 33-year-old founder, listing off a series of apologies he had made stretching back to 2003, that “you have a long history of growth and success, but you also have a long list of apologies,” suggesting “this is proof to me that self-regulation simply does not work.”
The day before, a poster board listing Zuckerberg mea culpas from 2006, 2007 and 2011 was raised during questioning by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said that “we’ve seen the apology tours before.” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pointed to Zuckerberg's history of making apologies and asked, “After a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different?” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) told him to “please stop apologizing and make the change.”
They aren't the only ones who've been suggesting that Zuckerberg’s repeat apologies, after years of hearing similar remarks, will have a lesser impact. Communication and leadership experts said Facebook's repeat refrain could limit how much consumers and investors believe the company is really committed to protecting user data.
“When an apology keeps being issued over and over and a transgression keeps being repeated, the apology comes to have less meaning and less impact,” said Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “When over and over [Facebook] keeps doing things that infringe on user privacy, at some point, apologies become empty words.”
For more than a decade, after all, Zuckerberg has issued mea culpas, commitments to do better and promises to learn from Facebook's mistakes, often related to privacy or user data. In 2003, after creating Facemash, a “hot-or-not” site that went viral at Harvard and was Facebook's predecessor, Zuckerberg said that “this is not how I meant for things to go, and I apologize for any harm done as a result of my neglect.” After Facebook launched Beacon in 2007, sharing data with advertisers in outside websites and apps, he said that “we simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. ... People need to be able to explicitly choose what they share.”
When reporters spotted a privacy loophole in 2010, Zuckerberg promised to “add privacy controls that are much simpler to use,” and he said, “I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes” after Facebook reached a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.
And all of that preceded the recent round of explanations and promises after questions arose about its role in the 2016 election and after initial details emerged regarding Cambridge Analytica's harvesting of user data.
“We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward,” Zuckerberg said in March.
That rinse-and-repeat pattern to Zuckerberg's apologies has now drawn scorn not only from lawmakers in Washington but also on Twitter, in media coverage and by those raising alarm bells about Facebook's influence. As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill associate professor and “techno-sociologist” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in Wired last week, “the constant repetition of 'sorry' and 'we meant well' and 'we will fix it this time!' to refer to what is basically the same betrayal over 14 years should no longer be accepted as a promise to do better, but should instead be seen as but one symptom of a profound crisis of accountability.”
An email to a Facebook spokesperson earlier this week was not returned. In his response to Thune’s question Tuesday afternoon, Zuckerberg agreed that “a lot of the mistakes are around how people connect with each other, just because of the nature of the service overall.” But he said that “we’re going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility as a company,” and acknowledged that “we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility.”
Those who study CEO apologies say that the repeat nature of Zuckerberg's apologies — even if the scope or impact of the problem has varied — could erode their power.
“When something is part of a routine or normative, what happens is, it loses much of its significance,” said Amy Ebesu Hubbard, the department chair of communicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who has studied apologies.
“Think about how our brain works. If we're learning to drive, the first time, it takes all our cognitive resources. But after a while, when it's routine, we don't think about it,” she said. “When someone apologizes repeatedly, it's the same thing. In order to be seen as not being a platitude, you have to do something different to shed new light or have a deeper insight.”
She said there are two key parts to being forgiven: The first is offering a forthright apology, but the second is making sure the recipient feels empathetic toward you. People, she said, have to feel bad for you, and “that entails recognizing that you realize the severity of the damage.” When a leader is repeatedly apologizing, she said, “it calls into question your apology — was it really sincere?”
Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business who studies corporate communication strategy, compared it to a relationship.
“If you do something wrong and say you're sorry — whether you don’t take the garbage out or cheat on your partner — you might get another shot,” he said. “Do it three times, and it’s time for a divorce.”
Adams suggested Zuckerberg might try to position Facebook's mistakes more in the moral terms that so many users see them.
“His apologies, in and of themselves, are not bad, but they’re often defensive,” she said.
Academics who study such communication patterns, she said, tend to divide transgressions into one of two types: Those of competence (not communicating something well or an employee error) and those of integrity (doing something people generally disagree with on a moral basis), and said Zuckerberg can mix the two in his apologies.
“He tends to frame the mistake as a lack of communication and transparency, but what it comes down to is, users are not okay with their data being shared,” she said. “People see privacy as a moral issue.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Zeynep Tufekci's name.