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Facebook's Zuckerberg is right about TikTok and China. He's spectacularly wrong too

Commentary: The leader of the world's most powerful social network failed to defend himself and his company.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared by videoconference before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday.
CNET

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and co-founder of Facebook, wants us to look at him differently. He wants us to imagine what the world would be like if  people much worse than the benevolent leader he is were running the world's largest social network.

"China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries," he said Wednesday in his opening statement before a House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee, a not so subtle dig at China's efforts to reshape the internet. He also used the hearing to make jabs at one of his biggest competitors, the Chinese social networking app TikTok, which US government agencies and some companies say could be a national security threat.

 "As Congress and other stakeholders consider how antitrust laws support competition in the US," Zuckerberg said, "I believe it's important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America's digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world. … Many other tech companies share these values, but there's no guarantee our values will win out."

I'll say it so no one else has to: Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg, for not being the boogeyman.

Also, thank you for not being Kim Jong-un, Lex Luthor or the digital Wicked Witch of the West. And considering his self-destructive social media use, I'm even thankful you're not Elon Musk.

But is this how far we've sunk in our national discourse around Facebook that its savvy and shrewd CEO believes his best course of action is to hope Congress will treat him differently because he says he's not the Dr. Evil of the internet?

There shouldn't just be daylight between Zuckerberg and our modern-day villains. Facebook's CEO should be a good guy.

I'm disappointed to see Zuckerberg and this new Batman-at-the-end-of-The-Dark-Knight shtick, acting as though he's the misunderstood hero whose redemption is around the corner.

In case the embarrassingly uninformed congresspeople aren't aware, Zuckerberg isn't Batman. He's arguably way more powerful and has more money too. Also, I can't believe I have to say this but considering everyone's behavior before Congress, maybe I should -- Zuckerberg isn't a martyred comic book character who'll magically fix everything at the 11th hour.

If he could have fixed everything, then he wouldn't be on Capitol Hill for the third time in two years, defending Facebook's business practices. And let's remember, Facebook is a business -- a very profitable one that earned Zuckerberg a spot in the billionaire boys club.

That success may have earned Zuckerberg respect several years ago, but Congress made it clear that's a hindrance now.

"Facebook's very model makes it hard for new companies to flourish," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, said during the five and a half hour hearing, which also directed questions at three other titans of Silicon Valley: Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. 

Facebook declined to make Zuckerberg available for an interview with CNET.

Mark Zuckerberg on a video screen in a House of Representatives chamber.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the House subcommittee by video.

Getty Images

The real problem

Now that we've dispensed with this ridiculous debate, let's move on to what actually matters: Zuckerberg's nonstop, uninterrupted and, many argue, negligent failure to police one of the most destructive forces on Earth today. 

Facebook failed to stop horrific acts from happening on its service, be they the livestreamed shooting at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year. It failed to halt election interference happening across the social network. And it failed to stop the rise of dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, which helped lead thousands of people to shun health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Facebook's own employees and advertisers are fed up too, holding online protests the past two months over Zuckerberg's insistence he won't police voter disinformation being published by the president of the United States ahead of our November presidential election, among other things. Even scientists he hired for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are fed up, sending a letter to the tech billionaire in June, saying his actions are "antithetical" to his foundation's philanthropic mission.

What's worse is that Zuckerberg already knows all this. Just this month, Facebook released an independent civil rights audit it commissioned of his company and its policies around hate speech, advertising and its news feed algorithms. 

The group's findings: Even with improvements to its platform, Facebook has made "vexing and heartbreaking decisions" with "real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights." In one instance, the group criticized Facebook's decision to leave up posts by Trump alleging, without evidence, that mass mail-in-voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic will lead to voter fraud. 

"While Facebook has built a robust mechanism to actively root out foreign actors running coordinated campaigns to interfere with America's democratic processes, Facebook has made policy and enforcement choices that leave our election exposed to interference by the president and others who seek to use misinformation to sow confusion and suppress voting," the auditors wrote in the July report.

So can we get real here, and ignore for a moment that if he actually admitted to all these awful things his lawyers would collectively have a series of heart attacks?

Zuckerberg no longer appears to care whether we agree with him or not. Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman explained his thinking when he finally decided to police the out-of-control toxic parts of his website in June. Reddit shut down groups such as the_Donald and others that spread conspiracy theories and disinformation, and were said to harass other communities on Reddit's service. 

Then Huffman admitted there was "an unacceptable gap between our beliefs as people and a company, and what you see in our content policy." 

"I fear we let being technically correct get in the way of doing the right thing," Huffman said.

No kidding.

When it comes to Facebook, we have to contend with much bigger issues than coordinated harassment and hate campaigns that arose from Reddit's darkest corners. Facebook's services by comparison have been used as tools in a genocide, as a 2019 United Nations report found about the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. And that's just one of an exhaustingly growing pile of ways Facebook's left the world worse off than we started.

Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat and the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee that called Wednesday's hearing, noted this concern when discussing a viral video from the right-wing site Breitbart on Monday. The video falsely claimed that a drug hyped by Trump, hydroxychloroquine, is a cure for COVID-19 and that people don't need to wear masks. It was viewed 20 million times before it was taken down.

"Doesn't that suggest Mr. Zuckerberg, that your platform is so big that even with the right policies in place, you can't contain deadly content?" he asked. "You're the only game in town. There's no competition forcing you to police your own platform, allowing this misinformation to spread can lead to violence."

"Frankly," he added, "I believe it strikes at the very heart of American democracy."

Photo montage showing Rep. David Cicilline, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

This was Zuckerberg's third time testifying before an open congressional hearing. On this occasion, he was joined -- by video hookup -- by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Apple's Tim Cook and Google's Sundar Pichai.

Photo illustration by Brett Pearce/CNET

What to do

If I were the one questioning Zuckerberg on Wednesday, I'd have started by asking him to confirm key details in the fantastic reporting by journalists at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, Wired, Recode, The Information and the Verge about Facebook's efforts to cover up corporate mismanagement, its inadequate approach to policing its services and the series of missteps that allowed dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation to flourish on its service. And I'd ask him to confirm these details on the record and under penalty of perjury so that government lawyers can get through their investigations faster. 

Then I'd ask why Zuckerberg seems to feel so put upon to answer for Facebook's failures.

I get that Zuckerberg is likely still feeling a bit of whiplash. He was at the top of the world in 2016, and then it all came crashing down as his service was coopted by propagandists to undermine the US election in support of Donald Trump.

twitter-facebook-logo-phone-united-states-flag-4542

Facebook and Twitter still struggle with disinformation ahead of the 2020 election.

Angela Lang/CNET

The reality is that Facebook's high was a facade. If people had been appropriately aware of the growth of misinformation, the spread of hate speech and the erosion of our privacy, there would still have been backlash. But we wouldn't feel like Facebook lied to all of us by covering up data hacks, ignoring abuse on its service and allowing one of the worst attacks on American democracy to happen on its service.

Zuckerberg brought this on himself. And unlike his new favorite boogeyman, he can't just Chinese firewall it away. Instead, I suggest Zuckerberg take all the energy and time and untold money he's spent on consultants, lawyers and public relations gurus and instead just turn around, take his punches and then go fix the damn site.

If he does, then I'll be thankful.