Zuckerberg’s appearance in Washington marks his most forceful attempt to articulate his vision for how governments and tech giants should approach the web’s most intractable problems. The scale of Facebook and its affiliated apps, Instagram and WhatsApp — which make up a virtual community of billions of users — poses challenges for Zuckerberg and regulators around the world as they struggle to contain hate speech, falsehoods, violent imagery and terrorist propaganda on social media.
Next week, Zuckerberg is set to testify at a US congressional hearing that’s likely to serve as a wide-ranging review of the company’s business practices. Facebook’s size, meanwhile, has become a primary object of derision from some Democrats seeking the White House in 2020, who contend that Facebook is too big, powerful and problematic and should be regulated or broken apart.
The election lends urgency to Facebook’s issues. The social network became a major platform for disinformation during the 2016 race, and experts say that the forms of manipulation and deception have evolved since then, including the arrival of deepfakes, or videos that convincingly distort what a subject is doing or saying using artificial intelligence.
Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook has work to do to combat such digital ills. He revealed Facebook has been “working through what our policy should be” on deepfake videos. “I think we’re getting pretty close to at least rolling out the first version of it.” He declined to provide additional details.
But Zuckerberg stood behind the way Facebook, which has long eschewed fact-checking political ads, handles political ads. “I think we’re in the right place on this,” he said. “In general, in a democracy, I think that people should be able to hear for themselves what politicians are saying.”
The Trump campaign ad about the Bidens made claims about their connections to Ukraine, a critical element in the congressional impeachment inquiry. Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad, describing it as false, but the social-networking site declined, pointing to a policy against fact-checking such political speech. The company’s response drew widespread rebukes from Biden and other 2020 Democratic candidates, including Warren, many of whom have charged that Facebook essentially is profiting from misinformation.
Speaking at Georgetown, Zuckerberg acknowledged the company once considered prohibiting political ads but decided against it, believing it “favours incumbents and whoever the media covers.”
But a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, Bill Russo, later assailed Zuckerberg for an unconvincing rationale. “Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line,” Russo said, “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.”
Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism from both sides of the aisle about what content it censors. Republicans, for example, have contended that the company censors conservative users and news websites, a charge the company has long denied.
“Often, the people who call the most for us to remove content are often the first to complain when it’s their content that falls on the wrong side of a policy,” Zuckerberg said. “These are very complex issues, and in general, unless it is absolutely clear what to do, I think you want to err on the side of greater expression.”