A pedestrian takes a photograph with an Apple Inc. iPhone of signage displayed outside Facebook Inc. headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Zuckerberg Needs a Wizard to Clean Up Facebook’s Mess

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Is Mark Zuckerberg “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?

The comparison with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 lyrical ballad was invoked in the middle of a hearing in Brussels on Tuesday, where he faced questions from a handful of European lawmakers.

In the poem, a wizard’s young apprentice is left alone by his master and enchants a broomstick. Before too long, he finds that the broom has run amok, flooding the house with pails of water he has commanded it to fetch. He pleads for his returning master to step in and undo the damage. 

It was this moment that reminded left-wing German MEP Gabriele Zimmer of Zuckerberg’s predicament:

I have serious doubts about Facebook’s fundamental ability to return the platform’s business model to its origin as a communications platform for open dialog. Is it, for example, more akin to Goethe and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, where he declares:

“Sir, my need is sore. Spirits that I’ve summoned my commands now ignore.”

The parallels are clear. Left to his own devices and without oversight from a regulator, Zuckerberg and co. have created a beast that is no longer under their control. That seems to be the consensus emerging from lawmakers. In his prepared remarks, Zuckerberg admitted that “security is not a problem that you can ever fully solve.”

Problem is, the 34-year-old casts himself more in the mold of another Goethe antihero: Faust. In the poet’s magnum opus, a well-intentioned scholar is led astray by the demon Mephistopheles. Each time he tries to achieve something positive, Mephistopheles contrives to twist it towards evil ends.

It's a trope Facebook executives have persistently revisited in public this year: Little did they know, runs the argument, that the small website started in a college dorm room would 10 years later grow into a beast which could sway an election. They aimed for enlightenment (of us) and ended up in a world of trouble.

Here's what Zuckerberg told Congress in April:

"I think it's pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we're at now without making some mistakes."

In this analogy, perhaps, Cambridge Analytica is Mephistopheles.

There’s at least one similarity with “Faust” — its length. When both parts of “Faust” were staged in the year 2000, it ran to 21 hours. So far, Zuckerberg and his Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer have endured some 17 hours of questioning.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” though, is a more apposite comparison, even if its scale is more contained. When pressed during his testimony on critical issues such as shadow profiles — the practice of collecting data on people who don’t have Facebook profiles — and monopolistic behavior, Zuckerberg squirmed and seemed unable to provide a credible response. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Leonid Bershidsky has written, it’s time for lawmakers to start taking action — to help him put the broomstick back in the closet.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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