Public Hearing

The hearings of Mark Zuckerberg and Park Geun-hye

2018.04

The Role of Public Hearings
Public Hearing
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I. Historic hearings in South Korea and the U.S.

Recent public hearings held in South Korea and the U.S. have captivated the attention of the whole world.

  • Hearings in South Korea: The hearings to investigate the monopoly of state affairs perpetrated by former President Park Geun-hye and her top aides.
  • Hearings in the U.S.: The hearings to investigate Facebook’s careless management of users’ personal information and fake news, as well as its adverse effects on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

In South Korea, hearings regarding the former President’s charges of massive corruption and abuse of office came to a close, [1] leaving much to be desired.

  • [2] The matter at hand: Investigation of former President Park Geun-hye, who colluded with civilian confidant Choi Soon-sil during her time in office to monopolize state affairs by secretly interfering with politics, the economy, society, and culture. The hearing focused on the charges of bribery and the illegal collusion between Park/Choi and founding families of chaebol conglomerates, the monopoly of state affairs carried out by a handful of high-ranking Blue House officials who were also close aides to Park/Choi, and Park’s unaccounted seven hours of absence after the Sewol ferry sinking.
  • Length: Seven rounds of hearings were held at the South Korean National Assembly and at the Seoul Detention Center (where Park is currently imprisoned) from December 6, 2016 to January 9, 2017.
  • Participants: All the leading figures in South Korean business and politics—from the presidents of Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Lotte to the Blue House chief of staff and culture minister—were called to testify.
  • Facilitators: Eighteen members of the National Assembly’s special investigation committee attended seven rounds of hearings and conducted various rounds of witness questioning.
  • Live broadcast: All the hearings, excluding the sixth hearing which was held at the prison, were broadcast live on TV; many clips were extracted and shared on YouTube, Facebook, etc.
  • Hot issues during the hearings
    • The empty courtroom: There were many absent from the list of people who were called to appear. The majority of conglomerate presidents attended the hearing, fearing the potential negative impact of their absence on company stock and performance. However, most government officials and staff did not attend the hearing. For example, only four out of the 20 people asked to attend the seventh hearing were actually in attendance.
    • “I do not know either”: Many bribery allegations were raised during the hearing with conglomerate presidents, but everyone in attendance answered similarly (“I do not recall,” “I am not familiar with this topic,” “I will try to find out through my staff,” etc.) and were consequently rebuked by the public.
    • Lies, and lies again: A considerable number of answers given were revealed to be acts of perjury. Kim Ki-chun, Woo Byung-woo, and other high-ranking government officials close to Choi Soon-sil lied under oath, claiming that they did not know Choi at the time. Former nursing officer Cho Yeo-ok gave a false testimony favorable to Park regarding her unaccounted seven hours after the Sewol sinking.
    • Feats(?) of the socially disadvantaged: Only a few in attendance readily testified to what they knew, helping the investigation gain ground. Those who testified did not have much to lose, being either retired officials or ordinary office workers who had been merely used by those in power.
    • Ridiculous questions: After the hearing, many citizens have said the questions lacked substance. In particular, Saenuri Party members, who were cornered for being part of the then-ruling party, allotted much of their time to not pursuing the truth, but defending themselves and their party. For this, they were rebuked by the public. In the case of some opposing party members, they did not question the witnesses in a logical, methodological way based on well-prepared materials, but only cast suspicions without proper evidence. For this, in addition to raising their voice at participants, they were likewise rebuked by the public.

In the U.S., hearings about Facebook’s election interference scandal were held with the goal of better regulating Silicon Valley tech companies, but popular opinion has ruled Zuckerberg the winner of this particular match.

  • The matter at hand: Investigation into Facebook’s involvement in Cambridge Analytica, a British data analysis company, turning over the personal information of 10 million American Facebook users to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as Russian bots spreading fake news on Facebook and interfering with the 2016 American election.
  • Length: Two rounds of hearings were held at the Senate and House of Representatives on April 10 and 11, 2018.
  • Participant: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified as the sole representative of his company.
  • Facilitators: For a total of 10 hours, nearly 100 members of Congress questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook’s monopoly status in addition to various allegations surrounding Facebook.
  • Live broadcast: The live hearing was streamed on CSPAN and broadcast on TV, while countless clips were shared on YouTube, Facebook, etc.
  • Major points of the hearings
    • Zuckerberg’s tactic of apologizing without disclosing: Zuckerberg chose admission of responsibility, apology, and alternatives moving forward over excuses and evasions regarding the matters at hand. He explicitly admitted to Facebook’s blunder, saying, “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” Zuckerberg apologized for not taking the proper precautions to ensure that a third-party app could not leak Facebook users’ personal information and promised to investigate suspicious apps as a method of active prevention for the future. He also acknowledged that Facebook had failed to expose fake news spread by Russian bots on their platform, particularly during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election—but ensured that Facebook was working on improving AI technologies to eradicate fake news.
    • Zuckerberg in sheep’s clothing: Zuckerberg treated the legislators at the hearing with respect, rather than antagonism. He donned a suit with a Facebook-blue tie, forgoing his trademark gray t-shirt and jeans, all the while beginning each of his answers with a polite “Senator,” “Congressman,” “Congresswoman,” or “sir.”
    • Facebook’s future strategies: Zuckerberg’s testimony revealed the future direction of Facebook. When a Senator suggested that Facebook switch to a paid service that doesn’t collect personal information, Zuckerberg said he will continue to provide Facebook as a free service and as a result, not give up the business model that earns its profit through ads—suggesting that Facebook will continue to collect and manage users’ personal information in the future. Moreover, Zuckerberg responded to suspicions about Facebook’s monopoly status, refuting the logic that its massive user base makes it a monopoly and indirectly expressing his intention to actively resist antitrust regulations on Facebook. In response to the opinion that Facebook should collect only the information that users wish to provide, Zuckerberg said Facebook collects all information as a base, but won’t collect the selected information they don’t wish to reveal, meaning that his position on users’ personal information runs counter to the American government’s.
    • Stupid questions: Many criticized the quality of questions asked at the hearing. Some members of Congress, not having grasped how Facebook earns its revenue or collects its users’ data, repeated exceedingly basic questions and were consequently mocked by the public. However, a few members were able to ask sharp questions about Facebook’s monopoly status and the need to limit Facebook’s access to users’ personal information, flustering Zuckerberg and casting Facebook in an unfavorable light.


II. Similarities and differences between the hearings in each country

The hearings held in South Korea and the U.S. were similar in that the overall quality of the hearings was low, but they increased citizens’ political participation.

  • Lacking professionalism: The elected officials who participated in these hearings failed, [3] by and large, to meet the professional standard for such questionings. They did not understand the essence of the incident and/or lacked the appropriate knowledge to ask the right questions. Occasionally, they did not even ask questions, but simply made statements for their own political gain.
  • Lacking truth: Many participants did not [4] shed much light on key issues, in fear of future lawsuits. Ultimately, the hearings called to mind an old adage—“There’s nothing to eat on an extravagant dinner table”—meaning, the more extravagant the setting, the less substance there is to actually consume.
  • Increased political participation of citizens: The live broadcast of hearings and various edited clips shared through social media piqued citizens’ interest in politics.

However, Korean hearings can learn from American hearings in regards to listening intently and answering rather(?) sincerely, as well as respecting the citizens who watch the hearing.

  • Listening intently: In the case of the American congressional hearing with Zuckerberg, the Senators did not interrupt or cut into Zuckerberg’s answers. There was a culture of listening intently to a witness’s remarks.
  • Not perjuring: Zuckerberg did not lie. He may have evaded precise answers, but he did not give false testimony.
  • Replying sincerely, out of respect for the citizens watching: Zuckerberg admitted to Facebook’s “mistakes” and tried to propose a concrete direction for solutions regarding the eradication of fake news and strengthening privacy protection of personal information. Rather than treating the hearing as a time to just somehow endure, he treated the hearing as an opportunity to communicate with citizens and legislators.

III. Implications

Hearings in the U.S. and South Korea have revealed the fundamental limitations of hearings in elucidating important events that profoundly impact the lives of ordinary citizens.

  • Hearings are not legally binding. Witnesses cannot be forced to attend the hearing and do not face any legal penalties for perjury. Hearings, in a way, puts participants under the scrutiny of the whole nation—but to the person who believes that public opinion is short-lived, hearings may be only momentarily painful.
  • Hearings lack expertise. Because legislators elected to represent their district are often not experts in the topics relevant to the hearing, it is difficult to expect sharp questions based in expert knowledge. Additionally, because most elected officials are over the age of 50, they can be lacking in their comprehension of recent trends and issues.
  • Hearings are not in the service of truth. Those who attend the hearing focus on minimizing the negative impacts that could reach themselves, rather than effectively conveying the truth. In Zuckerberg’s case as well, it has been reported that he created a team of consultants and advisors and practiced a mock hearing before appearing in Congress. This is the extent to which he sought to control how his statements at the hearing would impact Facebook’s future, especially in the case of a legal dispute.

However, we can expect, at least in part, three positive aspects from hearings.

  • Hearings are the unique chance for citizens to receive live coverage of those who were directly involved in the events that had a profound impact on their lives. It is difficult, if not entirely impossible, for hearings to be scripted and/or edited. In this way, hearings perform their role of fulfilling the citizens’ right to transparency.
  • In the case of a country that fears the power of its citizens and respects their rights, hearings can be a space for serious communication. Because hearings are not the court of law, it may be difficult to fully expose the truth; nonetheless, hearings are a space for witnesses in attendance to reveal some of what they know.
  • Hearings are where National Assembly members, with the power to represent their constituency regarding politics, economics, and society as a whole, can oppose actions that infringe upon citizens’ rights.

Three improvements must be made for hearings to fulfill their role of seeking truth.

  • Institutional supplement is necessary to improve the professionalism of legislators attending the hearing, with legislators either attending with a panel of professionals or forming a panel of legislators who have relevant expertise to the incident.
  • There needs to be institutional improvement to allow for legal penalties for those who do not attend the hearing or those who commit perjury. Additionally, there also needs to be various campaigns (e.g., refusal to vote for a politician who perjured) to strengthen the social awareness that betraying the public’s trust is something to be feared.
  • During the hearing itself, there needs to be efforts for a culture of mature discussion to take place and to create a space where high-order questions and sufficient answers can be found, rather than a place rife with shouting, interruptions, and the half-hearted answers of those playing dumb.

Talk to your Ringle tutor about public hearings and receive feedback on your English usage.

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