Mark Zuckerberg again defended Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking political ads, as he faced withering criticism from lawmakers concerned about the spread of misinformation in the 2020 election.
The purpose of Zuckerberg’s appearance before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday was to explain the company’s plans for Libra, a digital currency. But the hearing quickly delved into other issues, as the committee’s chair, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) hammered Zuckerberg over issues of antitrust and diversity, telling him that “perhaps you believe that you are above the law.”
She said Facebook’s political ad policy “allows politicians to lie, mislead and deceive” but would “allow Facebook to sell more ads, thus making the company more money.”
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“Our policy is we do not fact check politicians’ speech, and the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg said. “Political speech is some of the most scrutinized speech already in the world.”
Facebook does work with a set of independent fact checkers on non-political spots, he said.
He also pushed back on the idea that Facebook wasn’t fact-checking candidates’ political ads because it wanted to reap more revenue. He said that spots make up a small percentage of their business and “does not come close to justifying the controversy” that has focused on the corporate ad policy.
Facebook announced a series of steps this week to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 elections, including more prominent labels on content posted to Facebook and Instagram that a third-party fact checker has deemed to be false.
The policy does not apply to political ads, though, and it’s become an issue in 2020 presidential politics. Joe Biden’s campaign has asked Facebook to take down an ad from Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that accuses Biden of corruption related to Ukraine. Politifact deemed the ad “false.”
Other Democrats criticized Facebook’s policy. To make a point, Elizabeth Warren went so far to purchase a Facebook ad that falsely claimed that Zuckerberg was supporting Trump for reelection.
At the hearing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked Zuckerberg if she could “run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal.”
“I think probably,” he responded.
Zuckerberg also told lawmakers that the company was working on a policy on how to handle so-called “deep fake” videos, or footage that has been altered yet still looks real. That was the case with a video that went viral earlier this year in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to be slurring her words. The company, however, refused to take the video down.
Even as Facebook has faced bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill on privacy and data issues, lawmakers are diverging when it comes to the nitty gritty of what speech should be allowed on its platform and what should not. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) told Zuckerberg, “I do find it highly troubling that politicians are trying to bully you to be a fact checker and to be the speech police, especially in politics at the core of the First Amendment.”
“Will you commit that Facebook will not censor any political ad placed on your platform or in support of President Donald Trump?” Barr asked.
Zuckerberg repeated what he said earlier. “People need to be able to see for themselves and make judgments on what the candidates are saying and their character.”
Barr responded, “Don’t be bullied by politicians that want to censor politically incorrect speech.”
Trump’s campaign has greatly outspent his potential Democratic rivals on Facebook ads in the past month — $3.16 million, according to the company. By contrast, Biden’s campaign has spent just $459,000.
Zuckerberg reluctantly shared some information about his recent meeting with Trump. He said that they did not discuss antitrust issues as Facebook faces state and federal investigations, but he declined to talk much further about what was said as it was “inappropriate to comment on private conversations.”
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