Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg issued a vehement defense of free expression on Thursday, saying he believes taking a laissez-faire approach to what is allowed to be said online is better than having Silicon Valley giants determine what is acceptable speech. Zuckerberg’s comments come amid calls from the social network’s critics for Facebook to take a more proactive approach in policing its users and its political advertisements.
“As a principle,” Zuckerberg said during a speech at Georgetown University, “in a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
Zuckerberg and Facebook have been criticized in recent weeks by 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, who has argued the company should not run political ads with false claims. To reinforce her point, Warren intentionally lied in a Facebook ad last week. It was the latest run-in between Facebook and Warren, who has repeatedly called for the U.S. government to break up the company and other major tech firms.
“Once again, we’re seeing Facebook throw its hands up to battling misinformation in the political discourse, because when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit,” Warren later tweeted.
Zuckerberg, without referring to Warren by name, said Thursday he was also worried about misinformation. At the same time, he thinks Facebook’s users, rather than the company, should ultimately decide whether an ad contains false information.
“I know many people disagree with us,” Zuckerberg added. “But in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”
Zuckerberg said he’d considered banning political ads altogether, as some writers have suggested in recent weeks. From a business perspective, political ads aren’t worth the headache, he said; Facebook made $55 billion in ad revenue last year, and less than $300 million of that came from midterm election ads. But by banning political ads, it would favor “incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover” — something that’s also undesired, he said.
On free expression in general, Zuckerberg said he wants Facebook to take after the “American free speech tradition,” but said there were still some exceptions Facebook would make as a private company. “Hate speech” — even though it’s protected by the First Amendment, Zuckerberg noted – would not be tolerated, as well as pornography, child exploitation and calls to violence. Saying “all Muslims are terrorists,” Zuckerberg said, could potentially “escalate” the situation and make matters worse.
In recent years, Facebook has been criticized by both pundits on the left and the right over who and what it allows on its platform. In May, Facebook banned several prominent right-wing commentators, including Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The company pointed to a vague policy against “dangerous individuals and organizations” as the reason for its purge.
On Thursday, Zuckerberg said the company finds itself at a crossroads between fostering free expression and taking selective action against posts and users that violate its rules. Facebook will be adopting an independent board to let users appeal when their content has been removed, Zuckerberg said. Facebook’s executives, once a decision has been made, will not be allowed to overturn the board’s ruling. “Frankly, we don’t always get it right,” Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg finished by contrasting Facebook’s approach to free expression with TikTok’s. The wildly popular app, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has been wiping its platform of any support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “Is that the internet that we want?” Zuckerberg asked.