WHAT WE LEARNED WHEN BIG TECH WAS CROSS-EXAMINED
Two of the world’s richest men seem to swap roles as their public masks are dropped, finds James Cook
Aviators on and muscles bulging, Jeff Bezos strode past a group of photographers assembled outside the entrance of the Sun Valley conference in Idaho.
It was July 2017, and the Amazon boss was about to eclipse Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as the world’s richest man. He had every reason to be confident.
The photographers quickly grabbed their lenses to take the now-famous images of Bezos transformed from geeky book lover to billionaire body builder. When the photos were published, social media went wild. “Congratulations Jeff Bezos on your change in personal brand from ‘business ascetic’ to ‘prefers killing with his bare hands’,” wrote one Twitter user.
Since then, Bezos has spent a great deal of time carefully curating his public image. Part of that persona is that of a ruthless businessman who is in complete control.
But that’s not the image Bezos portrayed at Wednesday’s competition hearing. He mumbled and was constantly interrupted before he could get finish answering his questions. At one point, he forgot to unmute his microphone when he was talking.
Instead, it was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who came across as a savvy, calm executive who would take no prisoners.
That too, came as a surprise. He has often been described as awkward and nervous. His depiction in the film The Social Network as a hoodie-wearing student has stayed with him long into his thirties.
It seems as though the two tech tycoons have switched personalities. However, the emergence of Zuckerberg as a clear-sighted, determined executive won’t have come as a shock to anyone in the technology industry who has for years seen examples of his ruthless streak which causes other businesses to worry that Facebook could replicate their features if they cross its founder.
Emails released by Congress on Wednesday showed the founder of photo-sharing app Instagram worrying about an acquisition approach by Zuckerberg in 2012 before he eventually agreed to sell for $1bn (£765m).
And Zuckerberg has similarly held firm when it comes to Facebook’s tax arrangements around the world. The company paid just £28.5m of tax in Britain in 2018, despite sales surging to £1.7bn.
This approach showed through in Zuckerberg’s performance. One of the only times he appeared awkward, according to body language expert Craig James Baxter, was when he was questioned on whether Facebook copies its competitors.
“We see signs of discomfort from Zuckerberg, such as the tight lips and numerous speech hesitations, a shoulder shrug,” Baxter says. “For the remainder of the questioning he spoke well and was able to deal with the forcefulness of the questioning without showing any noticeable behavioural leakage.”
Bezos, however, largely failed to charm members of Congress. One topic that was of particular concern to multiple members of Congress was whether Amazon uses data on third-party products sold through its site to help it produce its own competing items.
Amazon has denied that its employees routinely use this data, but Bezos waffled when pressed on his knowledge of policies banning employee access to the valuable information. “We are investigating that … I do not want to sit here and I do not want to go beyond what I know right now,” he said hesitantly.
Amazon’s chief executive also played dumb when asked if he was aware of claims that virtual assistant Alexa promotes Amazon’s own products over third-party items. “That is unacceptable, if those are the facts,” he said.
“Bezos’s performance was very different to Zuckerberg’s,” Baxter says. “It would appear that the abruptness of the questioning from Congress is something Bezos is not keen on.
“Bezos often hesitated during his verbal answers, providing the listener with numerous speech hesitations and speech errors, which both reduces the credibility of his answers and lessons the impact that his hand gestures make,” he adds.
It didn’t help that Bezos experienced technical difficulties during the hearing, which added to the awkwardness of his responses.
Wednesday’s hearing may have featured a change of roles for two of the world’s wealthiest men, but that doesn’t mean any of the executives managed to win over the widespread vocal critics of their companies’ practices.