Six Lessons Debaters Can Learn From AOC’s Cross-Examination of Mark Zuckerberg

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an excellent cross-examiner. Most congressional hearings are mind-numbingly boring, but AOC’s ability to dismantle witnesses has generated many productive and entertaining exchanges. Debaters can learn a lot about effective cross-examination by studying her strategies and techniques.

One powerful example of AOC’s prowess as a cross-examiner that I have often shared with debaters occurred during a House Financial Services Committee Hearing on October 23, 2019. In just five minutes, AOC effectively posed a series of challenging questions that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg struggled to competently answer. Their exchange received a lot of media attention and likely contributed to Facebook’s decision a few months later to amend its political advertising policy.

Below the fold, I will identify six lessons that debaters can learn from this cross-examination. Before continuing, I suggest that you watch (or re-watch) the video of AOC’s exchange with Zuckerberg; it is embedded below. A transcript of the hearing is also available; the relevant section begins with “The gentlewoman from New York, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, is recognized for five minutes.” If you aren’t familiar with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, it might also be helpful to read this Vox explainer (or at least click through this short Wired piece).

1. How To Get Commitments

One of the most important purposes of cross-examination is to get commitments. A commitment is essentially a pledge or promise about an argument. When a respondent commits to a clear answer to a question, they have established a position that is difficult to backtrack from later in the debate. This enables you to formulate your strategy based on this commitment.

Getting commitments is difficult. Respondents rarely want to commit to clear, nonnegotiable answers to important questions; they’d prefer to keep their options open for as long as possible. You will often see this play out in 1AC cross-examinations of affirmative plans (where the 1A is reticent to commit to any particular explanation of the plan’s agent of action or the details of its policy proposal) or in 1NC cross-examinations of topicality violations, counterplans, kritik alternatives, and other off-case positions (where the 1NC is wary of committing to particular explanations that might reveal shortcomings or invite persuasive affirmative responses in later speeches).

In AOC’s cross-examination of Zuckerberg, she began by asking a clear, direct, and specific question: “what year and month did you personally first become aware of Cambridge Analytica?” Notice the details in this question. What year and month did you become aware? When did you personally and first become aware? Zuckerberg struggled to dodge this question: “I’m not sure of the exact time, but it was probably around the time when it became public. I think it was around March of 2018. I could be wrong though.”

AOC followed up with another specific question: “When did Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, become aware of Cambridge Analytica?” Again, this is a difficult question to dodge; Zuckerberg was forced to admit “I don’t know off the top of my head.”

By wording her questions carefully (with specific details) and by asking them directly and concisely, AOC forced Zuckerberg to either stake out a clear position about when he became aware of Cambridge Analytica or admit that he didn’t know. This is a great technique for debaters to emulate.

Another powerful technique that AOC used to get commitments was to pose hypothetical questions. In an attempt to force Zuckerberg to clearly spell out Facebook’s political advertising policy, she asked him to apply it to two examples: (1) “Under your policy, using census data as well, could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?” and (2) “Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?”. When Zuckerberg attempted to obfuscate, she followed up aggressively. Eventually, she posed a direct question: “So you won’t take down lies, or you will take down lies? I think this is just a pretty simple yes or no.”

While it is impossible to “force” a respondent to make a commitment, these two techniques can force them to decide between making a commitment and obfuscating in ways that risk seriously harming their credibility.

2. How To Follow Up

Most debaters are capable of asking good questions in cross-examination. What distinguishes great cross-examiners is not their ability to ask good questions, but their ability to achieve something valuable in their cross-examinations. Asking good questions is rarely enough by itself to get what you need from a cross-ex exchange. To make a cross-examination matter, you typically need to effectively follow-up on your good questions.

For this reason, I find it helpful to think about cross-examination in terms of “threads” rather than questions. Threads are the distinct topics or subjects raised during a cross-examination. Each thread typically involves at least two questions: an opening question and a follow-up question. Many good cross-examination threads extend for much longer.

In AOC’s exchange with Zuckerberg, she deftly controlled the tempo and subject matter of the cross-examination. When Zuckerberg tried to dodge the opening thread about when Facebook became aware of Cambridge Analytica, AOC followed up with a series of challenging questions. Eventually, AOC drew attention to Zuckerberg’s attempted obfuscations and turned his strategy against him: “You don’t know. This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company, that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election. You don’t know?”

The thread about hypothetical campaign ads also featured excellent follow-ups. She again reacted to Zuckerberg’s obfuscation by conveying a sense of exasperation: “So you don’t know if I’ll be able to do that?” Then she zoomed out from the specific hypotheticals to the larger issue she was trying to raise by asking a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”.

Effective follow-ups are often necessary to get commitments. As noted above, AOC tried to force Zuckerberg to take a clear position on Facebook’s political advertising policy. The following exchange included several excellent examples of different styles of follow-up questions:

AOC: So you won’t take down lies, or you will take down lies? I think this is just a pretty simple yes or no.

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, in-

AOC: I’m not talking about spin, I’m talking about actual disinformation.

Zuckerberg: Yes, in most cases, in a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians, that they may or may not vote for, are saying [crosstalk]-

AOC: So you won’t take them down?

Zuckerberg: … they can judge their character for themselves.

AOC: You may flag that it’s wrong, but you won’t take it down?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, it depends on the context that it shows up. Organic post ads, the treatment is a little different.

In the end, Zuckerberg did not commit to a clear explanation of Facebook’s policy. But because AOC followed up so well by challenging his answers, his refusal to provide this explanation was a serious blow to his credibility (and the credibility of Facebook’s policy).

3. How To Preface Questions With Arguments

While cross-examination is structured as an exchange of questions and answers, it is still an important speech for developing arguments. Recognizing this, an important technique for debaters to develop is prefacing questions with arguments.

As AOC demonstrated in her back-and-forth with Zuckerberg, sometimes the most valuable thing a questioner can do in a cross-examination is to make sure the audience hears an important argument. The response is less important; the questioner’s point has been made.

There are three good examples of this technique in this exchange.

First, AOC opens her cross-examination with a preface that establishes the context for her series of questions about when Facebook became aware of Cambridge Analytica: “I think you, of all people, can appreciate using a person’s past behavior in order to determine, predict, or make decisions about future behavior. And in order for us to make decisions about Libra, I think we need to kind of dig into your past behavior and Facebook’s past behavior with respect to our democracy.” This preface made it clear to the audience (and to Zuckerberg) why the subsequent questions were relevant and important. This put the audience in the right frame of mind (from AOC’s perspective) to listen to the ensuing exchange. It also made it more difficult for Zuckerberg to dodge the questions by challenging their relevance; their purpose had already been clearly established.

Second, AOC prefaced her hypothetical questions about Facebook’s political advertising campaign by explaining what she was about to do: “You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year.” When she then proceeded to ask about hypothetical scenarios, it was clear to the audience why she was asking those questions. Again, this made it more difficult for Zuckerberg to dodge them. It also helped ensure that the audience was “thinking along with” AOC; her technique motivated the audience to be interested in Zuckerberg’s answers.

Third, AOC’s final thread began with a question that was intended to make a point, not to elicit an answer: “One more question. In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of who advanced the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss so-called social media bias against conservatives? And do you believe there is a bias?” AOC didn’t particularly care how Zuckerberg answered that question — he was unlikely to give a definitive answer. Her goal was to make sure the audience was aware of Zuckerberg’s “dinner parties with far-right figures” and the beliefs that those people have expressed.

By prefacing her question with this statement, AOC made her point and put Zuckerberg on the defensive: he either had to challenge her characterization of his social ties (a “no win” option that would probably have drawn more attention to the issue) or ignore it. He opted to pretend he didn’t understand the question: “Sorry, I don’t remember everything that was in the questions.” That was fine with AOC: “That’s all right. I’ll move on.”

Debaters can use this technique to draw attention to their most important evidence, highlight important distinctions they are attempting to draw, make sure the judge understands the opposing positions on an important issue, and save time in future speeches by previewing and explaining an important argument.

This technique can also help debaters maintain better control over their cross-examinations. In the exchange between AOC and Zuckerberg, approximately 880 total words were spoken: 464 (53%) by AOC and 416 (47%) by Zuckerberg. This was in spite of Zuckerberg’s attempts (like repeating the word “Congresswoman” twelve times) to slow down her momentum. Maintaining a relatively equal share of cross-examination speaking time isn’t necessarily important in-and-of-itself, but it is often a good indication that the questioner was well-prepared.

4. How To Effectively Interrupt

The exchange about Zuckerberg’s dinner parties was also a good example of another cross-examination skill that AOC has mastered: the ability to effectively interrupt. This can be difficult. If the questioner is too passive, the respondent will obfuscate, filibuster, and run down the clock. If the questioner is too aggressive, they will come off as rude and undermine their credibility with the judge. Learning how to politely but aggressively interrupt someone requires finding the right tone and practicing a lot.

Some interruptions (like the one about Zuckerberg’s social ties) are intended to allow the questioner to move on to another thread. Others are intended to stop the respondent from filibustering and push them back to answering the question. A good example was in the earlier exchange about hypothetical ad campaigns.

After an explanatory preface, AOC asked Zuckerberg this question: “Under your policy, using census data as well, could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?” Zuckerberg’s response started to meander: “No, Congresswoman, you couldn’t. We have … Even for these policies around the newsworthiness of content that politicians say, and the general principle that I believe that, in a democracy-“. AOC interrupted: “But you said you’re not going to fact-check my ads.” This forced Zuckerberg to stop sharing his thoughts about the nature of democracy and return to the specific issue of Facebook’s political advertising policy.

At the end of this thread, AOC again interrupted Zuckerberg several times. In the exchange excerpted above (in the section of this article about how to follow up), AOC effectively stopped him from going on tangents that were not directly responsive to her questions. She was firm but not (excessively) rude, and this prevented Zuckerberg from running out the clock; this allowed her to get to another thread before her time expired.

As AOC understands, the key to an effective interruption is to use the appropriate tone. Sometimes, this requires aggressiveness or a sense of exasperation. Other times, a more delicate and polite approach is needed. AOC credits her bartending experience for helping her find the right tone:

“The psychology of my witness shapes my style and approach for the day. I study them throughout the hearing or in their previous videos. I adapt my words and vibe to complement the situation. The goal is not to yell or make a point. It’s to get your desired result. Where do I learn and refine this psychological skillset? Bartending.

To see how this can play out, compare AOC’s cross-examination of Zuckerberg with her cross-examinations of Trump Attorney Michael Cohen, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan, and Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The tone of each cross-examination is subtly or sometimes significantly different because AOC is adapting her questioning style to the witness.

5. How To Strategically Sequence A CX

The sequence of a cross-examination is an extremely important variable in determining whether or not it is successful. A poorly-sequenced cross-examination can be ineffective even though the questioner came prepared to raise challenging and well-designed questions.

AOC’s exchange with Zuckerberg was well-sequenced. She raised three threads. The first established when and what Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica. The second probed the scope of Facebook’s political advertising policy. The third highlighted Facebook’s ties to far-right organizations and publications. How did she determine the order that she raised these three issues?

The first thread was the most important. By asking specific questions about Facebook’s knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s operations, AOC was able to get Zuckerberg on the record. This was something that could only be accomplished during a hearing; Zuckerberg would have been unlikely to commit to a specific answer to these questions in any other forum. It also established the necessary grounding for subsequent legal challenges and public relations campaigns against Facebook. By asking these questions first, AOC made sure she had time to accomplish her most important goal. She also probably calculated (correctly) that this thread would only take a minute or two to complete, leaving time for additional questions.

The second thread (offering hypothetical scenarios to probe the specifics of Facebook’s advertising policy) could have taken up the remainder of AOC’s cross-examination period. When she designed her strategy, my guess is that AOC was willing to keep this thread alive until her time ran out if she was making good progress or if she needed to do so in order to successfully make her point. As it actually played out, she made the judgment call to end the thread after raising the second hypothetical. By then, it seemed like she had made her point and that there were diminishing returns to asking Zuckerberg about additional hypotheticals.

Putting this thread second in the sequence gave AOC the best chance to successfully challenge the efficacy of Facebook’s policy. Starting with this thread would have been dangerous; if it dragged on too long, she might not have been able to get the important commitments from Zuckerberg about when and what Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica. Even if she had time to ask those questions later in the cross-examination, starting with a long thread involving hypotheticals and aggressive follow-ups might have put Zuckerberg on the defensive and given him more flexibility to dodge her “when and what” questions. By getting those commitments first, AOC maximized her chances of success.

The third and final thread (about Facebook’s relationship to the far-right) was probably one that AOC hoped she would get to, but I don’t think she would have been too upset if she didn’t have time for it. Unlike the first two threads, the third thread’s value did not depend on having access to Zuckerberg as a witness. Its purpose was to make a point about Facebook that AOC could have made (and did make) in other forums. Asking about Zuckerberg’s ties to the far right during the hearing was a great way to get attention and generate a potentially-viral video, but it wasn’t as important as the two previous threads.

Leaving this thread for last was also strategic because it limited Zuckerberg’s ability to respond. This allowed AOC to finish on a strong note. The closing sequence of her cross-examination was quick but powerful:

AOC: One more question. In your ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of who advanced the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax, did you discuss so-called social media bias against conservatives? And do you believe there is a bias?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman … Sorry, I don’t remember everything that was in the questions –

AOC: That’s all right. I’ll move on. Can you explain why you’ve named The Daily Caller, a publication well-documented with ties to white supremacists, as an official fact-checker for Facebook?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, sure. We actually don’t appoint the independent fact-checkers. They go through an independent organization called the Independent Fact-Checking Network that has a rigorous standard for who they allow to serve as a fact-checker.

AOC: So you would say that white supremacist-tied publications meet a rigorous standard for fact-checking? Thank you.

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I would say that we’re not the one assessing that standard. The International Fact-Checking Network is the one who is setting that standard.

Because the clock was running out as AOC raised the final thread, she had more latitude to interrupt Zuckerberg and make him get to the point. Even if he had wanted to challenge the premise of her initial question about his dinner parties, she could have quickly cut him off so that she could ask her question about The Daily Caller.

This was a great way to end the cross-examination, but it wouldn’t have been a good way to start it. Getting commitments from Zuckerberg about Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica and forcing him to apply Facebook’s political advertising policy to specific hypotheticals were more important uses of AOC’s scarce cross-examination time. Both of those threads netted higher value responses that could only be accomplished in a cross-examination; dunking on Zuckerberg about his dinner parties and The Daily Caller could have been accomplished in a Tweet.

Thanks to smart sequencing and good time management, AOC was able to accomplish her primary goals and get in a good final zinger. Had she put the zinger first, she probably would have been unable to achieve her more significant goals.

Debaters often confront a similar tradeoff in their cross-examinations: either prioritize a few easy zingers and risk running out of time for the most important threads, or prioritize the most important threads and risk foregoing a few easy zingers. As AOC’s exchange with Zuckerberg demonstrates, it is almost always smarter to treat the zingers as a nice but optional “bonus segment” rather than the cross-examination’s featured attraction.

6. How To Successfully Prepare For A CX

As with constructive and rebuttal speeches, good preparation is an essential element of successful cross-examination speeches. You can’t see the process AOC used to prepare for this cross-examination just by watching it, but you can certainly tell that she was well-prepared.

How did AOC prepare? She published an Instagram story in 2020 that explained her process. Part of it is duplicated here; other parts are shared here and summarized here. Among other things, she and her team use the following methods to prepare for hearings:

* She challenges her staff to “pitch” ideas and coaches them on how to “refine and direct” questions.

* She writes down all her possible questions on Post-it notes. That way she can move them around as she considers their order.

* She brutally edits: “There’s a LOT of work left on the cutting room floor! ✂️,” she writes.

* She’s willing to throw out all her questions and start afresh if they feel wrong in the moment (as she did, she says, with Zuckerberg, writing up new questions as she listened in the hearing).

* She studies the “psychology and disposition” of the witness, a trick she credits to her years bartending: “I adapt my words and vibe to complement the situation. The goal is not to yell or make a point. It’s to get your desired result.”

Debaters can use the same approach to transform a list of good questions into a successful cross-examination strategy. AOC’s advice about sequencing is particularly important:

* “To me, the key challenge of a hearing isn’t actually identifying questions to ask — it’s figuring out what to ask and say and fit into five minutes for a high-profile, often non-cooperative witness.”

* “I like using sticky notes in my first draft because I can move the order of my question line around to create a cohesive, straight line of questions.”

* “I create ‘pods’ of questions that I can swap in and out depending on how the witness is answering questions, and how much time I have.”

* “No matter how much preparation you have, you also need to be willing to throw everything out the window. [In the Zuckerberg hearing] I threw all of it out. It just didn’t sit right with me, and I drafted an entirely new line of questioning with information that I had gotten the night before, and I largely planned out my questions while I was sitting there in the hearing.”

While there are important differences between the five minute questioning periods in congressional hearings and the three minute cross-examination periods in high school policy debates, the same skills that have allowed AOC to excel in the former can be studied and practiced by high school students to excel in the latter. By emulating some of AOC’s strategies and techniques, debaters can dramatically improve their cross-examinations.