Mark Zuckerberg touted Facebook as a champion of “free expression” in a wide-sweeping speech, offering a staunch defense of the social media giant following several rocky years characterized by allegations against the platform of censorship and bias.
Speaking at Georgetown University on Thursday, Zuckerberg defended the company’s decision to allow misinformation in political advertising on the platform, despite high-profile pushback against the policy.
“Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether,” he said. “But political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”
Zuckerberg also addressed Facebook’s attempts to enter the Chinese market, saying the company was unable to overcome China’s strict censorship.
“I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world, and I thought maybe we could help creating a more open society,” Zuckerberg said.
“I worked hard on this for a long time, but we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there,” he said. “They never let us in.”
Zuckerberg’s address was met with swift, and fierce, criticism.
Not-for-profit organizations pushed back against a number of Facebook policies highlighted on Thursday, including those around hate speech and voter suppression. When discussing discriminatory speech, Zuckerberg repeatedly stressed his commitment to “free expression” and said he feared “potentially cracking down too much”.
“Mark Zuckerberg made clear today that he is not only doubling down on a business model that corrupts our democracy, but also fundamentally lacks an understanding of how civil rights, voter suppression, and racism actually function in this country,” said Rashad Robinson, president of digital anti-hate group Color Of Change.
Zuckerberg’s reference to Facebook as the fifth pillar of democracy drew criticism from journalists. The Facebook CEO represents “the antithesis of free expression”, said John Stanton, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, in a statement.
“He’s thrown pennies at programs to ‘help’ journalists that, in actuality, are little more than PR stunts intended to provide cover as he puts countless journalists out of work, strips the industry to the bone, and reaps billions in ad revenue,” Stanton said.
Facebook’s policies on allowing misinformation in political advertising have been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks, following the platform’s refusal to take down a Donald Trump campaign ad that made misleading statements about the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Facebook has increasingly come under scrutiny as the 2020 elections near, with a number of candidates calling for the breakup of the social media giant.
In an effort to highlight the consequences of the policy, the Democratic senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren published her own misleading advertisement on the social media network.
Many of these issues may be addressed when Zuckerberg testifies next week at a congressional hearing over Libra, Facebook’s new cryptocurrency.
“Look, we know we’re doing a very good job of making everyone angry,” Zuckerberg said.