Feb 1, 2024 - Business

Big Tech CEOs survive congressional grilling

Jason Citron, CEO of Discord; Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap; Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok; Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X; and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, are sworn in during the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 31, 2024.

From left, Discord CEO Jason Citron, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 31. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Some of tech's most powerful executives received a bipartisan grilling on Wednesday — and most of them fared reasonably well.

Why it matters: How an executive shows up before Congress can directly impact their company's reputation and ability to grow or create value.

Driving the news: X CEO Linda Yaccarino, who flubbed a key public appearance early in her tenure, gave the strongest testimony and quickly won legislators' favor by announcing X's endorsement of the Stop CSAM Act, becoming the first social media platform to do so.

  • She continually emphasized that minors between 13-17 years old make up just 1% of its daily users and noted X's plans to build a new trust and safety center and hire more in-house agents to review exploitative material.
  • Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also benefited from announcing Snap's endorsement of the Kids Online Safety Act ahead of the hearing.

Between the lines: It was smart for Yaccarino and Spiegel —who were both testifying for the first time — to come armed with legislation endorsements.

  • Discord CEO Jason Citron, who also was appearing before Congress for the first time, was less prepared and visibly flustered while fielding the senators' questions.
  • "Hearings can be difficult for CEOs testifying for the first time, who may not be used to being challenged directly or interrupted repeatedly," says Nu Wexler, partner at Four Corners Public Affairs and former Twitter, Facebook, and Google comms lead.

Between the lines: As Ashley Gold and Maria Curi, who cover tech policy for Axios, point out, hearings of this nature aren't meant to create space for lengthy policy discussions — they are meant to put public pressure on executives.

  • Senators repeatedly questioned whether each CEO would endorse specific, existing legislation — and when CEOs attempted to discuss the nuance of the bills, they were shut down.

Yes, but: The execs still managed to hit their talking points, defend their records and share a laundry list of policies they were implementing to help protect children on their platforms.

  • Plus, personal appeals were made by both Zuckerberg and Spiegel, who addressed parents directly and apologized for what their families had suffered.

What they're saying: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who spoke to Axios' Maria Curi outside of the hearing room, was surprised by the glimmer of accountability from Zuckerberg and Spiegel.

  • "If you listen to what Evan [Spiegel] said, either he just has a better coach or he's just a more empathetic person. ... I felt like he was much more emotionally attuned to the significance of what he was doing."
  • "And the moment when Mark [Zuckerberg] got up and apologized, I was like wow, that's the first moment I've ever actually believed that you were actually moved," she added.

Go deeper ... The do's and don'ts of congressional hearings

Go deeper