The rhetorics of Mark Zuckerberg’s Congress hearing

Arshad Shaharudin
11 min readMar 21, 2021


Rhetoric is a very subtle and delicate art of wordmanship. The subject of rhetoric is not widely discussed, but in fact, everyone is using it. It is either we are the rhetorician or we are the ones who received rhetoric. In a very general definition, rhetoric means the art of persuasion and the aim is to study the capacity of the informant (speakers/writers) with their goals to inform, persuade or motivate audiences in specific situations.

In time we are going through this writing, this particular event is not something new anymore, but it furnished this writing with ample example.

In April 2017, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was sat in a hearing with 44 committee members of Judiciary and Commerce, and Science and Transportation of the United States Senate. He was caught in a scandal over the alleged harvesting and the use of personal data. The six-hours of the congressional hearings ranged from his business model to Russian interference. This is all because of personal data breaching involving many ends including President Donald Trump and the main character, a British political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica.

What caused this ruckus?

I am breaking and plotting down rhetorical theories into this hearing situation; but first, understanding the scandal is a must. To begin with, this whole scandal started when Facebook launches Open Graph, a platform for third-party apps. This app allowed external developers to reach out to Facebook users and request permission to access a large chunk of user’s personal data — and, more than that, they gave access to their Facebook friend’s personal data too. This information including the user’s name, gender, location, birthday, education, political preferences, relationship status, religious views, online chat status and more.

What is more absurd, to a certain extent with certain additional permissions, these external sites could also gain access to a person’s private messages. To make the situation even worse, a Cambridge academician, Aleksandr Kogan and his company, Global Science Research created an app named “thisisyourdigitallife” in 2013. The app collected user’s data and information by prompted them to answer questions for a psychological profile. More or less 300,000 users that take the psychological test, then the app harvest their personal data, on top of that managed to gather data from their Facebook friends. This resulted in Kogan having access to millions of Facebook profiles data.

With all the information easily accessible, another entity: Cambridge Analytica take advantage of this fault situation. In the 2015 presidential campaign, Cambridge Analytica was reported to help Ted Cruz’s campaign by using psychological data gained spanning tens of millions Facebook users in an attempt to gain an advantage over his political rivals. When Facebook learned about the data leaks, they banned Kogan’s app and pressured both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica to remove all of the data they had acquired improperly; which Facebook thought they did but they did not.

When Facebook thought everything has ended, it did not; in the 2016 United States presidential election, Trump’s campaign investing heavily in Facebook advertisements — with the help of the same firm: Cambridge Analytica. Everything was undercover until mid-March 2018, a whistleblower, named Christopher Wylie, also a co-founder of the political data analytics firm revealed the alleged practice to The Guardian and The New York Times. Initially, they have reported that 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested for Cambridge Analytica, then later revised to as many as 87 million Facebook profiles. To which of course, Cambridge Analytica denied the accusation.

This is when The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) opened an investigation into whether Facebook had violated a settlement reached with the United States government agency in 2011 over user privacy protections. United States lawmakers urged Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the congress.

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation

Now, let’s get to the rhetoric part. Firstly, to understand how this whole theory work in this situation, an explanation is needed.

The Rhetorical Situation is founded by Lloyd Bitzer in 1968. His explanation and understanding of the theory were simple, ‘a rhetorical discourse is called into existence and presence of a situation’. In his theory, there are three constituent parts to make up a rhetorical situation:

1. Exigence. The cause. The mark to open any rhetorical situation. Exigence is a problem or a situation that occur. Exigences are usually natural occurrences, and cannot be changed or shaped by human interactions. However, it can occur out of human interactions. Natural exigence such as natural disaster or death, and human-caused exigence are political conflict, or this Mark Zuckerberg’s case itself.

2. Audience, the second constituent of Bitzer’s The Rhetorical Situation. For any rhetorical discourse to be applied, there must be an audience for the rhetoric to be applied to. Rhetorical discourse promotes change through its influence on an audience’s decisions and actions.

3. The last and the third part of the constituent is the constraints. Constraints are the limit or any restrictions to the decisions and the actions. It can be made up of people, events, objects or any kind of relations in between. Constraints also consist of unconscious limitations for subjects in society. This includes any aspects of gender, race, class or economical factors. Interestingly, constraints are not necessarily to happen only between the audience, but constraints can also come because of the speaker. This is through the speaker image of his or her personal character (ethos), their logical proof of the speech (logos), and the use of emotion and sentimental value (pathos).

The Exigence

Breaking up these three parts of the theory, it is easier now to fit the parts into the case. The first constituent, the Exigence, is when the whole scandal happened. Basically, the exigence is caused by Facebook’s own wrongdoing. Their decision to launch the Open Graph platform is promoting the threat of data privacy breaching. They let themselves into a threatening situation and did not manage to secure the safety of their user’s privacy.

Things as expected, getting worse when an external firm takes full advantage of the situation. When Cambridge Analytica used the data to help Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump for whatever personal interest they are in, making people gone insecure, mad and obviously violated the settlement over user privacy protections.

To add more into the exigence is when Christopher Wylie, the co-founder of the political data analytics firm whistle blows the whole scandal and manage to attract the mainstream’s attention. The Federal State Commission take prompt action by opened up the investigation, and fair to say, Zuckerberg timing was right when he immediately breaks his silence in his Facebook post, saying “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” He then called for a hearing.

The Audience

Moving on to the second constituent, the Audience. Upon his hearing on April 10, 2018, he was sat in front of 44 United States congress committee members as well as in an open session live nationwide. He has the whole room and the whole country as his audience to rhetorically defend himself. Having the whole hearing in front of congress members and also broadcasted, his audiences is a group of people who are obviously not a sitting duck, they are responsive, smart, and is not easy to be persuaded. It is a challenge for him to move the whole audience in the way he wanted.

The Constraint

Coming into the third constituent, the Constraints. Having a group of intellectuals as your audience, already screaming constraints already. One of the constraints that appear was when the senate board lose trust in Mark Zuckerberg’s answers because of the fact that Zuckerberg gave promises to do better, but the fact that Facebook has been running for more than a decade but is still vulnerable to the most important issue; that is data privacy. Considering the fact that Facebook is the biggest social media platform that holds millions of people personal data, it is the utmost concern about their data privacy management, and obviously, Facebook is failing in that department. Here is some extract of the hearing proving the senate board questioning Facebook and Zuckerberg’s credibility over this issue.

SEN. THUNE : After a more than a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different and why should we trust Facebook to make necessary changes ensure people’s privacy and give people a clearer picture of your privacy policies?

Ethos, Logos and Pathos

Aristotle draw differences between ‘artistic’ and ‘non-artistic’ by giving a definition of persuasion appeals. While the ‘non-artistic’ appeals are things like a written document, a hard-fact testimony of the witnesses that are actually being ‘used’ not invented.

While the ‘artistic’ appeals consist of Ethos, Pathos and Logos from the Zuckerberg’s Congress Hearing Senate. From the Congress Senate, Zuckerberg used the element of Logos; which referring to the reasoning process when the speaker expresses an argument involving the topics that include a question, definition, clarification, etc.

Zuckerberg had his opening statement and he is well-prepared. He played it safe by mentioning “we made mistakes”, “need to take a broader view of our responsibilities”, “we’re already taking action” and phrases that do not fully deny the allegations, and trying to make him look responsible for his company’s fault. Rhetorically Zuckerberg responded well to the senate.

These are some of the ways he addressed the issues:

1. “Informing users about how Facebook data is used”. He clarified that long privacy policies are might be confusing. ‘If you make it long and spell out all the details, then you probably going to reduce the per cent of people who read it’.

2. “Whether people understand how Facebook uses their data”. Multiple senators emphasized that user agreements are long and confusing and that more data is collected by Facebook than many users might realize. Zuckerberg said, repeatedly, that he believes users — even if they don’t read the full agreement — generally know how their data is used and have different expectations for different kinds of services.

He used his Logos in a very passive-aggressive way manipulating his rhetorics saying ‘this is not my fault alone’.

Next, Ethos. A speaker’s Ethos more likely delivering his context by offering credibility or trust. The main technique is through confidence in delivery. Through the hearing, Zuckerberg remained calm and firm and did not show any remorse or awkward and sweaty public appearances. The way he conveyed the information is very appealing.

When a question that he has been asked: “So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” asked Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican. Zuckerberg could hardly contain a smirk and replied, “Senator, we run ads”. He has confidence, and he knew it.

When apologies were expected, Zuckerberg delivered those, maintaining his poise, vowing Facebook would do better, promising to follow up on specific points by saying he was open to the “right” kind of regulations. He checked off all the boxes required for an obligatory trip to the congressional.

Pathos defines as conceptualizing the degrees of emotion with an expression such as anger, outrage. The main technique of mode persuasions through stories, inspirational quotes and vivid language. This element was applied less at the Senate hearing because Zuckerberg tends to show his professionalism while delivering his speech.

In one of his answer to the senator, which he said:

“So, we have made a lot of mistakes in running the company, I think it is pretty much impossible. I believe to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we are at now without making some mistakes and because our service is about helping people connect and information, those mistakes have been different in how we try not to make the same mistake multiple times, but in general a lot of the mistakes are around how people connect to each other just because of the nature of the service”.

From his statement right here, when he mentioned the fact that his company started from a dorm room and he said it is impossible for him to not make a mistake is considered an appeal to emotion when he played as a victim and as if he said, ‘yes, I make a mistake because I developed this social media platform in a dorm room’, to which most of the senate did not buy the appeal.

The first instant of his rhetoric is when he deftly accepts the multiple allegations hurled his way without making him look like a bad guy. This is his opening statement for the early accusations:

“Chairman Grassley, Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Feinstein, Ranking Member Nelson and members of the committee, we face a number of important issues around privacy, safety and democracy. And you will rightfully have some hard questions for me to answer. Before I talk about the steps we’re taking to address them, I want to talk about how we got here.

Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all of the good that connecting people can do. And, as Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool for staying connected to the people they love, for making their voices heard and for building communities and businesses.

Just recently, we’ve seen the “Me Too” movement and the March for our Lives organized, at least in part, on Facebook. After Hurricane Harvey, people came together to raise more than $20 million for relief. And more than 70 million businesses — small business use Facebook to create jobs and grow.

But it is clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm, as well. And that goes for fake news, for foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

This statement he gave serve as a superb personal justification because instead of immediately responding to the allegations directed at him, he went back to what Facebook is all about and recapped the many wonderful and path-breaking things it has done. Only then he admitted the mistake that Facebook did. Through his response, it seemed that he is trying to tell that he too is human and despite a lot of good things he and Facebook did, it’s only their mistake that everyone cares about.

Understanding and listening to Zuckerberg’s hearing in front of the senate are rather very interesting, to the fact that Facebook is the largest social media nowadays and have done so many ground-breaking things over the years. It proves that Zuckerberg is a brilliant rhetorician. When Zuckerberg face the Congress, the fact that he remained calm and collected is very much admired, he surely bringing in himself so well that the rhetoric part of Ethos is unquestionable. Nevertheless, it is a standing fact that he play victim in his speech and keeps giving promises to do better in managing Facebook and constantly with his “we will look into it” connotation. A lot of apologies in his speeches also proven he played with Pathos really well but he toned it down not to look obvious but surely he sounded very apologetic.

This hearing gave a good example of rhetoric discourse from both ends, Zuckerberg and also the Congress. Zuckerberg in his apologetic tone in front of the congress and repeatedly mentioning the good things Facebook have done in order for him to look better, and also the congressman, in a more cunning tone when asking questions making Zuckerberg sometimes bow down to admit that the fact he did not to manage to secure his user’s data privacy well enough.

Watch the full 5-hour hearing here:



Arshad Shaharudin

A Media Studies BA graduate, now pursuing a Development Studies MA. Always read but doesn’t really write, hence, here he is trying.