Facts + Sentiment = Story (Facebook Edition)

Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony contained lots of “story math,” with sentiment as the variable in focus.

It should be clear that if congress wants to make some changes, they will need public sentiment tipped in their favor. Likewise, if Facebook wants Congress off of their backs, they will need that same public sentiment to feel like the government is somehow overreacting.

We can use a common sitcom / movie metaphor for the emotional framing we, the public, are subconsciously placing this in to form our opinion: picture a teenager coming home late at night after sneaking out, with the adult waiting up to confront them.

Zuckerberg is coming home to Congress and he had better have a good explanation for whatever he was up to.

The emotional stakes are high – who will we side with? You don’t root for the adults in Romeo and Juliet. You don’t root for the adults in every John Hughes movie. In those settings, our sentimental anchor is tied to the kids as the youthful hero. However, we do root for the adults as the hero (and moral authority) in Leave it to Beaver and Full House. In those cases, our sentimental anchor is tied to the adult hero’s wise judgement.

Story math says both Zuckerberg and Congress should use “facts – story = sentiment” to attempt to frame the public’s feeling towards them as the hero of our story.

Consider this oversimplified timeline of facts:

Zuckerberg starts Facebook in his dorm room.

Facebook gets in trouble for privacy violations and Zuckerberg publicly apologizes, more than once.

Cambridge Analytica uses Facebook data to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election.

Zuckerberg’s strategy is to disconnect these events from time, and make starting the company from his dorm room the central point. The lovable underdog hero can’t predict the bad events in advance, so at each stage of self-discovery they’re learning a lesson. The lesson always connects back to humble beginnings. The teenagers didn’t sneak out to hustle drugs, they did it for love – you don’t hate love, do you? This is a strategy based on creating positive associations with basic principles.

Congress, or at least Rep. Jan Schakowsky, understands the crime procedural approach of using the timeline to show a pattern of negative behavior. The sage-hero explains a chain of actions and their consequences. She ended by pointing out how self-regulation is clearly not the answer (like a true Danny Tanner). In other words, this kid needs some tough love because accepting these apologies is enabling. This is a strategy based on creating negative associations with a pattern of behavior.

For both, if we understand the math, we can understand how they’re laser focused on shaping sentiment. In the end – what will really matter is how this does, or doesn’t, shape the broader public’s sentiment.

Who do you think is winning? Why?

This conversation is just beginning.