London No-Show -- Is Zuckerberg's Position Safe?

If a picture among all UK pictures and news sites could paint a picture this morning, it was the empty chair left publicly vacant for Mark Zuckerberg at yesterday's Parliamentary hearing on fake news and privacy.

The cameras had clearly been allowed to take a choreographed photo of the view of the assembled parliamentarians from nine countries staring at the empty chair from the point of view of the missing Facebook founder with his nameplate front and centre on the desk in front of where he should have been sitting. The implication is clear. Those assembled didn't just want Mark Zuckerberg to know how annoyed they were at the turned-down invitation -- they wanted the world to know. 

It's worth pointing out that Mark Zuckerberg has done nothing illegal by not showing up. It was an invitation, not a summons. However, it begs a couple of questions. Why didn't he show up? And what comes next?

The meeting itself saw a UK representative take quite a lot of flak and the occasional question he couldn't answer, but he promised to come back with more information. The main tough questions were related to huge amounts of data downloaded from the site by Russian IP addresses. The BBC believes this was just related to Pinterest and so may not have been suspicious -- but the point was made anyway, the terms Russian interference and Facebook were linked once again.

Now, this could be the old hack cynic in me, but I am going to wonder aloud if Facebook is doing what fellow former journalists once explained to me the Royal Family and huge corporates do to deal with the press. I am not sure whether these are assumptions or how things really pan out, but several journalists have told me about this approach and how it is used for very different purposes.

It's very simple. You have one person who is allowed to soak up all the flak so, in royal circles, the main guy is saved -- and in corporate circles, so that person can then be fired and the company moves on. In terms of the royals, Prince Harry was widely believed to hold the position of taking one for the proverbial team. A lovable, charming gentleman of the world who could have multiple column inches written about love interests and hard-partying nights, while his brother was largely left alone.

With corporations, the genius founder fits nicely into this category. They get all the plaudits at the start, and then when their flaws are revealed or company issues become too massive, they can be moved on as the board tries to convince the press and the public that everything that went wrong was due to to one person and a new era is now underway. 

Let's be clear -- it has been a dreadful few months for Facebook after what has turned out to be a terrible year. The social media platform has moved on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to have serious questions raised about what it knew about third party apps' use of personal information and whether it was late to the party in noticing political interference on the platform, possibly from the Russians.

And then perhaps just as crucially, we have press reports suggesting the tech giant hired a PR firm to smear opponents. This was a PR firm Zuckerberg claimed to have no knowledge of and instructed staff to end the relationship with when he found out about the reports. To add insult to injury, a departing worker has today criticised the company on diversity, saying it has a "black people problem."

We can suspect the year ahead will bring us more on these developments. It's interesting to note, however, that a recent opinion piece in The Telegraph wondered aloud if Facebook was "too big" for Zuckerberg to carry on running after reports some investors were calling for his head.

Nobody can tell how this will pan out for sure. However, if Facebook feels there is an overwhelming call for tighter regulation and that its brand name is being tarnished by accusations of lack of action on fake news and protecting privacy, it does have one tried and tested solution -- the boss's resignation.

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