On Saturday night, the end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg went on his social-media platform and apologized.
“For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he wrote in a brief post. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
Zuckerberg did not say anything specific, but his mea culpa came in the face of mounting evidence that Russians had used the social-media platform he created more than a decade ago to spread propaganda and influence voter sentiment — all to tip the U.S. presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
A little more than a week ago, Facebook announced it would turn over to Congress copies of more than 3,000 advertisements that a shadowy Russian company bought for $100,000 from June 2015 to May 2017. The ads were linked to about 470 fake accounts likely operated out of Russia. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, said last month that the vast majority of the ads didn’t specifically mention the presidential election, but it touched on divisive topics, such as LGBT rights, race, immigration and gun rights.
Facebook had initially declined to share copies of the ads, saying it would compromise user privacy, but Zuckerberg announced a reversal of that decision on Sept. 21.
“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Live video.
Zuckerberg acknowledged that the amount of problematic activities Facebook has uncovered is “relatively small,” but he vowed that the company will continue to investigate and enhance transparency on who buys political ads. Facebook had already shared some of the same information it shared with Congress with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and had shut down thousands of fake accounts.
“I wish I could tell you that we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that just wouldn’t be realistic. There will always be bad actors in the world, and we can’t prevent all governments from all interference,” Zuckerberg said. “But we can make it harder . . . and that’s what we’re going to focus on doing.”
The social-media giant had come under criticism for being slow to acknowledge its role as a vehicle for propaganda. Zuckerberg had initially dismissed the notion that fake news stories proliferated on Facebook to manipulate voters.
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of content, influenced the election in any way — I think that is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said during a tech conference last November. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Zuckerberg has since walked back from those comments.
“Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” he said Wednesday in a post responding to a tweet from Trump in which the president said Facebook has always been against him.
Zuckerberg went on to say that despite Trump’s claims, liberals also say that Facebook helped the president win.
“That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like,” he wrote.
Facebook also has been a vehicle for hateful and violent posts. In August, when Heather Heyer was killed after a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Facebook said it had removed posts celebrating the 32-year-old woman’s death.
“As a Jew, it’s something I’ve wondered much of my life. It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” Zuckerberg said, promising to remove threatening and hateful posts.
Zuckerberg was raised Jewish and identified as an atheist for years. He seemed to have turned to religion recently, posting “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” greetings on his Facebook page last year.
Facebook is not the only social-media platform to face intense scrutiny.
Last week, Twitter said it had shut down 201 accounts linked to the same Russian operatives that bought political ads on Facebook, and that Kremlin-tied accounts had spent $274,100 in ads on its platform in 2016.