In a speech today at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics in Washington D.C., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to social media platforms that allow average people to express themselves as a kind of “fifth estate” that’s integral to modern society.
“The future depends on all of us, and whether you like Facebook or not, I think we need to recognize what’s at stake and come together to stand for voice and free expression at this critical moment,” Zuckerberg said as part of a broad-range defense of Facebook’s definition of freedom of expression. “We are at another crossroads: We can either continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide that the cost is simply too great.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook is important to billions of users as a way to empower people to build a business, start a fundraiser, start a movement, or express themselves without the need to rely on what he called “media gatekeepers.”
He also acknowledged the dangers of Facebook being used to target users with misinformation, like the way it was used by the Russian government to mislead voters and create division between U.S. citizens during the 2016 election in order to get Donald Trump elected president.
Facebook has been criticized in recent weeks for its unwillingness to take down an ad from Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, an action that drew fire from Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and a demand from Joe Biden’s campaign that the ad be removed. To prove a point about Facebook’s problematic political ad guidelines and standards, the Warren campaign intentionally published a Facebook ad with falsehoods. Zuckerberg called political ads an important kind of speech.
“We don’t fact check political ads, and we don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. For the same reason, if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with some of our standards,” he said. “Now, I know many people disagree with this. But in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we are not an outlier here. You know the other major internet platforms in the vast majority of media also run these same ads.”
2016 Trump presidential campaign officials credited its approach to targeted Facebook ads as integral to its win, and early analysis has found that the Trump campaign currently leads all other candidates in online ad spending on Facebook, Google, and other platforms.
Facebook and social media platforms like Twitter work with intelligence agencies and federal election officials to coordinate efforts ahead of the 2018 election.
China and censorship
In the impassioned speech that lasted roughly 30 minutes, Zuckerberg highlighted threats to freedom of expression, such as the censorship by Chinese authorities of the TikTok platform. “Is that the internet we want?” he asked. “This is one of the reasons why we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram, or our other services in China.”
Zuckerberg talked at length about Facebook initiatives designed to improve security and content trustworthiness. He also highlighted a number of efforts underway at the company, many driven by artificial intelligence, like the verification of user identities, an independent oversight panel to approve or reject posts, and ways AI helps protect users. He said Facebook is also using AI to protect users by hunting for clusters of fake accounts, flagging hate speech, and detecting users who want to harm themselves. He also urged the need for an AI tool to measure bias and fairness in models.
Breaking up Facebook
It all seemed so long ago: In 2017, when Mark Zuckerberg ditched his hoodie uniform for a suit and delivered the commencement address at Harvard University, some people in tech circles openly opined about whether or not the CEO of Facebook planned to run for president of the United States. Today, after Cambridge Analytica and being blamed for its role in hate crimes in places like Myanmar, Facebook faces criticism from Democratic presidential frontrunner Elizabeth Warren, who has made her promise to break up Facebook properties on anti-trust grounds part of her presidential campaign.
In closing statements, Zuckerberg responded to a question from a speech attendee about how Elizabeth Warren being elected president would impact Facebook. As he said in comments leaked last month from an internal company meeting on the subject, Zuckerberg argued that Facebook can do more good together than broken apart.
“This thing about breaking up the tech companies, it wouldn’t actually make it easier for us to do any of the things that we talked about today,” he said. He instead called for regulatory reform in areas like privacy and data portability. “What I think we need to do is we need to do our part to address the issues, we need to work with government to actually put in place rules on the real issues, and if that happens, then I basically don’t think that people will end up concluding that breaking up the companies is the right thing to do if if if lawsuits go forward or something like that happens.”