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Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg signaled in a controversial speech in Washington yesterday that Facebook is taking a long view on freedom of speech — trying to build policies and institutions that will transcend the politics of the moment.
Invoking Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War and World War I, Zuckerberg argued that in times of social turmoil, there’s often an impulse to crack down on free expression. He says the company shouldn't buckle on its values amid similar tensions today that are driven by globalization, technology and fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and migration.
Standing in a hall at Georgetown University where heads of state have delivered key speeches, the Facebook CEO said the company should stand strong in a decades-long struggle over how society values free speech, with dire consequences for the company's users if it does not.
“We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us,” Zuckerberg said. “Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”
The social media titan also made rare remarks about his legacy at Facebook, saying he is "not always going to be here, and I want to ensure the values of voice and free expression are enshrined deeply into how this company is governed."
Focusing on the long arc of history marks a major shift in strategy for the company that was once known for moving fast and breaking things. But that doesn't mean Facebook will be able to avoid current problems -- including a push to break up what some see as a dangerous behemoth, blowback from those who criticize the viral social media platform as refusing to police false information and probably disinformation campaigns by foreign entities leading up to the 2020 election.
And the tech titan doubled down on his stand that the company would not fact check political ads, despite a recent uproar about its decision to allow the Trump campaign to continue to run misleading ads about former vice president Joe Biden.
“People worry, and I worry deeply, too, about an erosion of truth,” Zuckerberg told The Washington Post ahead of the speech. “At the same time, I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true. And I think that those tensions are something we have to live with.”
In fact, many of the company's critics think the tech billionaire is desperately in need of a history lesson himself. Civil-rights groups particularly were dismayed with Zuckerberg using their movement as a defense for Facebook's policies -- especially the company's decisions not to fact check politicians' ads.
Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., called out Zuckerberg for using her father's story in defending its policies. Zuckerberg used King's arrest in Alabama as an example of efforts to crack down on free expression going too far. She tweeted:
I heard #MarkZuckerberg's ‘free expression’ speech, in which he referenced my father. I'd like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians. These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination. pic.twitter.com/h97gvVmtSZ— Be A King (@BerniceKing) October 17, 2019
Color of Change, a digital civil-rights group, called Zuckerberg's characterization of Facebook's contributions to social movements like Black Lives Matter the "ultimate hypocrisy." The organization slammed Zuckerberg for not doing enough to protect black users and for allowing hate speech to continue on the platform.
“Mark Zuckerberg made clear today that he is not only doubling down on a business model that corrupts our democracy, but also fundamentally lacks an understanding of how civil rights, voter suppression, and racism actually function in this country," Color of Change president Rashad Robinson said in a statement. "Under the guise of protecting voice and free expression, Facebook, as in prior elections, is giving Trump and the right-wing a free pass to spread lies, hate and misinformation on the platform."
The backlash against the speech highlights the tenuous position Facebook finds itself in as Zuckerberg prepares for another round of testimony next week on Capitol Hill. The Facebook chief executive is returning to a different Washington than when he last testified in April 2018, and he'll now face Democrat-led panels at a time when the party has some major bones to pick with him.
Democrats swiftly hit back yesterday as Zuckerberg explained Facebook's argument that it won't fact-check political ads, saying that "people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying."
“Facebook has chosen to sell Americans’ personal data to politicians looking to target them with disproven lies and conspiracy theories, crowding out the voices of working Americans,” Bill Russo, spokesman for Biden for President, told my colleague Tony Romm in a statement. “Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line, and his choice to cloak Facebook’s policy in a feigned concern for free expression demonstrates how unprepared his company is for this unique moment in our history and how little it has learned over the past few years.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has become one of the most aggressive critics of Zuckerberg on the 2020 campaign trail,tweeted that the speech showed "how unprepared Facebook is to handle the 2020 election."
Facebook is actively helping Trump spread lies and misinformation. Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. They might do it again—and profit off of it.— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 18, 2019
Zuckerberg has been following the criticism on the campaign trail, telling Tony in an interview before the speech that he tried to watch the Democratic debate Tuesday night from his flight to Washington. He told Tony the calls by Democratic candidates for a tougher approach to the tech industry reflect the issues since the 2016 election. And he pointed to his op-ed, published in the Post earlier this year, calling for regulation around the responsibility of platforms in moderating speech and protecting privacy.
"I generally think that in the absence of people seeing that the right things are being done to address those issues, people will just get angrier and angrier, and basically will lose faith in the nuanced solutions, and basically default to broader threats," he said. "And I think we're seeing some of that. I think it's our responsibility to help push for regulation that's going to help address these issues, because these are real issues that need to get dealt with."
RANT AND RAVE
Those tuning into the Facebook live stream of Zuckerberg's speech noticed something curious: The comments were overwhelmingly positive. Sad or angry faces were also rarely showed. That wasn't a coincidence, my colleague Heather Kelly reports — it was Facebook's algorithm. For popular live broadcasts on public pages, Facebook uses ranking signals to filter out “low-quality” comments, Facebook representative Tucker Bounds told Heather.
“The commenting system is an example of how Facebook uses technology to decrease how many eyeballs see problematic posts while sticking to its free-speech policy,” Heather writes. “Content is not necessarily removed from the site, unless it’s identified as something that violated Facebook policies, such as a threat of violence or hate speech.”
It left comments like these:
And here are some of my favorite happy comments from today. It is good sweater. pic.twitter.com/LnxSmAeFcZ— Heather Kelly (@heatherkelly) October 17, 2019
NBC News's Ben Collins pointed out more:
At the end of it, the top ten comments on Mark Zuckerberg's free-speech Facebook livestream are all dictator-at-a-mandatory-parade-level congratulatory.— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) October 17, 2019
Here's the most-liked one:
"Thank u for best programme &also Thank u best service for humanity. congratulation 😍" pic.twitter.com/HzWzpg47Qu
Some Twitter users pointed out the comment curation and Facebook's decision to cut the live stream before Georgetown students asked questions were ironic amid the company's push for free speech:
The top Facebook comments for Zuckerberg's Georgetown lecture on free expression are entirely positive. He turned off the live stream for the (pre-screened) student question portion. Oh, the irony. pic.twitter.com/ym8IY5PuYX— spooky-li lefcowitz 🎃👻 (@elisponderings) October 17, 2019
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Zuckerberg also warned in his speech that the rise of China-based social media companies could pose a threat to American values. He compared the actions of Facebook to its Chinese-owned rival, TikTok, as researchers raise concerns the app is censoring content related to the Hong Kong protests — even in the United States.
“There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major Internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese,” Zuckerberg said. “If another nation’s platform sets the rules, our nation’s discourse could be defined by a completely different set of values.”
Zuckerberg's strong stance against Chinese censorship marks a reversal of the company's attitudes toward doing business in the country. Just three years ago, the CEO was heavily cultivating relationships with Chinese leaders and the social network was reportedly developing a censorship tool that would allow it to operate in Beijing, Mike Isaac at the New York Times reported.
“We could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in,” Zuckerberg told the audience. “And now we have more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.” His comments come as other American companies, including tech giant Apple, face ongoing criticism for complying with Chinese censorship.
Zuckerberg's comments underscore how the company is leveraging its failure to expand into the Chinese markets as a key prong of its defense strategy amid increased regulatory scrutiny. Top Facebook executives have argued that regulators should be mindful of the size and power of Chinese companies as they consider breaking up the company.
NIBBLES: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is following up on promises to hold corporate giants such as Equifax and Facebook accountable with a new bill that would impose harsh fines, tax penalties and up to 20 years of prison time for executives at companies that “misuse” Americans' data.
“Mark Zuckerberg won’t take Americans’ privacy seriously unless he feels personal consequences,” Wyden wrote in a statement.
The bill also addresses key concerns that the Federal Trade Commission, consumers' top watchdog, doesn’t have enough resources or authority to properly penalize companies that abuse user data. The bill would empower the Federal Trade Commission to fine companies more aggressively and give the agency the authority to penalize companies for first-time offensives. Under the bill, companies would need to "assess the algorithms that process consumer data to examine their impact on accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy and security."
Wyden also puts forth the idea of a “Do Not Track System” that would allow consumers to opt out of data tracking. Companies would have to provide privacy-friendly alternatives for a reasonable fee. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) introduced a similar idea this spring.
Wyden last fall circulated draft language of the legislation, called the “Mind Your Own Business Act.” Broad bipartisan support for privacy legislation was building at the time — but since then such efforts stalled in Congress. A more moderate privacy bill, which does not include jail time for CEOs or allow for states to introduce their own privacy laws, was endorsed by moderate Democrats in the House this week.
BYTES: The rapidly expanding and young audience of Twitch, a streaming platform popularized by video gamers, has made it a popular platform for digitally savvy presidential candidates like Andrew Yang, Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Trump. But Twitch's growing popularity has also made it a target for extremists looking to spread hate speech and mass violence, my colleagues Drew Harwell and Jay Greene report.
Like many other platforms, Twitch took aggressive steps against violent content after a shooter live-streamed an attack on a New Zealand mosque in March. But the use of the platform to live stream a shooting outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany, underscores concerns that many smaller platforms don't have the tools and manpower to detect and block such abuse. Companies can upload violent content to an industry database to help stop it from spreading, but that tactic doesn’t address live-streamed events.
Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at the nonprofit group Counter Extremism Project, told my colleagues that while live-stream technologies popularized by social media companies can't be solely blamed for the rise in violence, the consequences are too devastating for companies and lawmakers to ignore.
“Live-streaming turns that act of violence into a spectacle, … [it] has turned mass shootings like these into propaganda gold mines.”
Amazon owns Twitch, and the e-commerce giant's chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.
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- Google has hired ex-Obama administration official Karen DeSalvo as the company’s first chief health officer, CNBC reports.
— Coming up:
Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23 in a hearing called “An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors.”