Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg invoked black activists from Frederick Douglass to those in the Black Lives Matter movement to defend his company’s handling of voices that spread false information.

But by using as an example black Americans who regularly faced risks for exercising their constitutional right to free speech, the billionaire set himself up for criticism about how harmful disinformation has been to black Americans historically and today.

During a lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday, Zuckerberg talked about the importance of giving individuals the opportunity to be heard. Here’s what he said:

Giving people a voice and broader inclusion go hand in hand, and the trend has been toward greater voice over time. But there’s also a counter-trend. In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression. We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.
We saw this when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham jail, where he was unconstitutionally jailed for protesting peacefully. We saw this in the efforts to shut down campus protests against the Vietnam War. We saw this way back when America was deeply polarized about its role in World War I, and the Supreme Court ruled that socialist leader Eugene Debs could be imprisoned for making an antiwar speech.

He highlighted how the abolitionist movement was made possible by the advocacy work of orators, journalists and activists. Without these individuals being able to exercise free speech, America would not have moved forward in recognizing the humanity of all people, Zuckerberg argued.

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Throughout history, we’ve seen how being able to use your voice helps people come together. We’ve seen this in the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass once called free expression “the great moral renovator of society.” He said, “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech.” Civil rights leaders argued time and again that their protests were protected free expression, and one noted: “Nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds.”

And Zuckerberg credited Facebook for amplifying the cries of black activists who have been drawing attention to police violence against black people in recent years. It is often through social media that black activists have organized, connected and been able to disseminate key information.

We now have significantly broader power to call out things we feel are unjust and share our own personal experiences. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo went viral on Facebook — the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was actually first used on Facebook — and this just wouldn’t have been possible in the same way before.

But Zuckerberg, who has found himself on the receiving end of much criticism for allowing disinformation to spread without repercussion, seemed to miss the message of the activists he leaned on to support his company’s recent policies.

King and Douglass spoke out against disinformation spread by individuals and organizations that in some ways had the same goals as those using social media to spread disinformation today. Black Americans fighting racism then and now are often lied about by their political opponents, who want to discredit them and prevent policies that could help marginalized people.

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Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader, attempted to make that point.

“I’d like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians,” she tweeted. “These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.”

King’s response addresses just how dangerous, if not deadly, letting all voices air their perspectives can be when the message is disinformation — even from government. Disinformation about her father spread by white supremacists, government leaders and other critics played a role in low approval ratings for his activism and the political worldview he championed, thus hurting his popularity and even making him a target.

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Many Americans who have criticized Facebook are sensitive to this, given the current political climate, in which some organizations have pointed to a spike in hate crimes and an amplification of racist messages by some people in power. Disinformation via social media is cited as one of the possible reasons black Americans turned out at lower rates than expected in the 2016 election. Not acknowledging how disinformation can shape the upcoming election has led some to deem the Facebook CEO deeply out of touch.

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“Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line,” Bill Russo, a spokesman for former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign, told The Washington Post. “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.”

Calls for Facebook to be more aggressive toward those who spread disinformation will probably increase — especially from those running for office. Zuckerberg’s current approach shows that as of now, business will continue as usual at the social media giant.

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