Mark Zuckerberg was under fire this week in Washington, D.C.
From the left the attacks were concentrated on his company’s role in the 2016 election, though the Democrats also asked about privacy issues from groups like Cambridge Analytica and there was even some tin-foil hatted moments when some Democrats wondered about Facebooks relationship with the NSA.
From the right the concerns were focused mostly on privacy-related issues, but Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) also made sure to hit on the concerns of the average Facebook conservative.
Here’s Cruz wondering why Facebook spends so much time silencing conservatives, but allowing liberals free rein to speak their minds?
— Ryan Saavedra 🇺🇸 (@RealSaavedra) April 10, 2018
Ted Cruz: Let me ask the question again. Does Facebook consider itself to be a neutral public forum, and representatives of your company has given conflicting answers on this. Are you a First Amendment speaker expressing your views, or are you a neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak?
Mark Zuckerberg: Senator, here’s how we think about this: I don’t believe that — there’s certain content that clearly we do not allow: hate speech, terrorist content, nudity, anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community. From that perspective, that’s why we generally try to refer to what we do as a platform for all ideas.
Ted Cruz: Let me try because the time is constrained. It’s just a simple question. The predicate for section 230 immunity under the CDA is that you are a neutral public forum. Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum or are you engaged in political speech, which is your right under the First Amendment?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well, Senator, our goal is certainly not to engage in political speech; I’m not that familiar with the specific legal language of the law that you speak to, so I would need to follow up with you on that. I’m just trying to lay out how broadly I think about this.
Ted Cruz: Well, Mr. Zuckerberg, I would say there are a great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship. There have been numerous instances with Facebook; in May of 2016, Gizmodo reported that Facebook had purposefully and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner/IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck. In addition to that, Facebook has initially shut down the Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day page, has blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over two dozen Catholic pages, and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page with 1.2 million Facebook followers after determining their content and brand were “unsafe to the community.” To a great many Americans that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias. Do you agree with that assessment?
Mark Zuckerberg: Senator, let me say a few things about this. First: I understand where that concern is coming from; as Facebook and the tech industry are located in the Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place. And this is actually a concern that I have, that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do, and I think that it is a fair concern that people would wonder about it.
And here’s Ben Sasse (R-NE) asking Zuckerberg to define “hate speech,” something Zuck fails to do, and pushing the tech CEO to realize that much of what the left calls hate speech is not actually hate speech.
.@BenSasse challenges Zuckerberg to define hate speech.
"Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking" on Facebook?
"It might be unsettling to people who've had an abortion to have an open debate on that, wouldn't it?" pic.twitter.com/mGHfnq4BWH
— IJR (@TheIJR) April 10, 2018
Ben Sasse: I think regulation over time will have a hard challenge. You’re a private company so you can make policies that may be less than First Amendment full-spirit embracing, in my view. But I worry about that. I worry about a world where when you go from violent groups to hate speech in a hurry. In one of your responses to one of the opening questions, you may decide or Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform. Can you define hate speech?
Mark Zuckerberg: Senator, I think that this is a really hard question. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we struggle with it. There are certain definitions that we have around calling for violence.
Ben Sasse: Let’s just agree on that. If someone is calling for violence, that shouldn’t be there. I’m worried about the psychological categories around speech. You used language of safety and protection earlier. We see this happening on college campuses all across the country. It’s dangerous. Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts someone else’s feelings. Guess what? There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your platform?
Mark Zuckerberg: I certainly would not want that to be the case.
Ben Sasse: But it might really be unsettling to people who have had an abortion to have an open debate about that.
Mark Zuckerberg: It might be, but I don’t think that that would fit any of the definitions of what we have. But I do generally agree with the point that you’re making, which is that as we are able to technologically shift toward especially having AI proactively look at content, I think that that’s going to create massive questions for society about what kinds of obligations we want to require companies to fulfill and I do think that that’s a question that we need to struggle with as a country. Because I know other countries are, and they are putting laws in place, and America needs to figure out a set of principles that we want American companies to operate under.
Ben Sasse: I wouldn’t want you to leave here today thinking there’s a unified view in the Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more speech. I think violence has no place no your platform, sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform. But vigorous debates, adults need to engage in vigorous debates.
We should be thankful for the vigorous defense of freedom that Senators Cruz and Sasse engaged in this week, but we should also pressure the rest of Congress to follow suit.
Normally, I would argue that Facebook is a private organization and can police speech as they see fit, but they also hold a true monopoly when it comes to social media and therefore we must apply pressure that would lead the company to err on the side of freedom, instead of the side of suppression and oppression.
I’m not arguing that we “break up” Facebook, but together we can and should demand that the platform remain as neutral and hands-off as possible when it comes to policing speech on its site.