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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends decision to let politicians lie in ads

Civil rights groups and Democrats criticize his remarks.

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At Georgetown University on Thursday, Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke about free expression.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday defended the social network's decision not to send speech from politicians to third-party fact-checkers, a move that's drawn scrutiny, especially from Democrats in the US. 

"I don't think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true," Zuckerberg said during a nearly 40-minute speech at Georgetown University.

The remarks highlight the social network's controversial approach to political speech as it tries to strike a balance between free speech and combating misinformation during elections. They could also escalate tensions between Facebook and politicians as the 2020 campaign season heats up. Democrats and civil rights groups swiftly criticized Zuckerberg's speech, arguing that the company hasn't learned from its past mistakes. 

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Zuckerberg said providing people a voice and including everyone are central to everything he creates, comments that come as he fends off criticism that his company wields too much power over social and political discourse. He championed the role of technology platforms, saying they had "decentralized" power.

"People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers," Zuckerberg said. "I actually believe that the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people's hands."

He also pushed back against the idea of banning political ads, arguing that this would favor incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover. But it's an idea the company has considered, Zuckerberg said.

Facebook has faced mounting pressure to do more to combat misinformation, hate speech and other offensive content on the world's largest social network, which has 2.5 billion users. The company also faces allegations that it censors conservative speech. Facebook has repeatedly denied that charge.

Over the last month, the company's hands-off approach to political speech has sparked more outrage. In particular, Democrats have lambasted a policy that allows politicians to post false information in ads on the social network. 

Earlier this month, Facebook rejected a request from Joe Biden's presidential campaign to pull down an ad from President Donald Trump's re-election campaign that contained misinformation about the former vice president. In response, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, a US Democratic senator from Massachusetts, ran an ad containing the deliberately false claim that Zuckerberg endorsed Trump. She did it to prove a point about the social network's policy, and the ad noted that it included misinformation. 

Zuckerberg said Facebook's policy isn't designed to benefit politicians but "because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying." In a Q&A after the speech, Zuckerberg said he doesn't think that allowing politicians to lie in ads is "pro-conservative."

Bill Russo, a spokesman for Biden's presidential campaign, said in a statement that Facebook is allowing politicians to target Americans with "disproven lies and conspiracy theories."

"Zuckerberg attempted to use the Constitution as a shield for his company's bottom line, 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," Russo said.  

Civil rights group Color of Change said Zuckerberg is "doubling down on a business model" that harms democracy. 

"Under the guise of protecting voice and free expression, Facebook, as in prior elections, is giving Trump and the right-wing a free pass to spread lies, hate and misinformation on the platform," Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said in a statement.

Zuckerberg has been talking to conservatives about their concerns regarding bias. He's had a quiet series of dinners with aggrieved conservatives to hear their complaints. In September, he also visited Trump and lawmakers from both parties during a rare visit to Washington, DC. On Friday, Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear on Fox News for the first time.

The threat from deepfakes

But with the 2020 US presidential election just around the corner, lawmakers are more worried about the spread of misinformation on social media. One big concern: "deepfake" videos that use AI to make it appear like a person is uttering words they aren't.

"I think figuring out which types of deepfakes are actually a threat today, versus are a theoretical future threat once the technology advances, is one of the things that we need to make sure we get right," Zuckerberg said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Earlier this year, Facebook faced criticism for keeping up a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that made the Democrat seem like she was slurring her words. Facebook doesn't ban misinformation but will show it lower in users' news feeds if fact-checkers rate the information as false.

Zuckerberg's speech touched on a wide range of topics, including calls to break up Facebook and the company's previous efforts to enter China. Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook's position that breaking off Instagram and WhatsApp from the company wouldn't solve woes around privacy and other issues. He said the social network couldn't strike an agreement with China, but the silver lining is that the company has more freedom to fight for free expression.

During the speech, Zuckerberg referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. That didn't sit well with some civil rights activists.

King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said in a tweet that she wants Facebook to better understand the challenges her father faced from political disinformation campaigns.

"These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination," she tweeted.

Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said Zuckerberg's reference to the movement she helped start showed a lack of "integrity."

"If he wants to use our movement to claim support for Black communities, then Black lives have to matter more than his bottom line," she tweeted.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been trying to improve how it moderates the billions of posts that flow across its site every day. The company is forming an oversight board to weigh in on some of its toughest content decisions. The board, expected to be made up of 40 members, plans to start hearing appeal cases next year.

"Building this institution is important to me personally because I'm not always going to be here," Zuckerberg said, "and I want to ensure the values of voice and free expression are enshrined deeply into how this company is governed."

Originally published Oct. 17, 10:28 a.m. PT.
Updates, 12:04 p.m.: Includes more remarks from Zuckerberg and interview with Washington Post; 1:01 p.m.: Adds comments from Color of Change and Biden's campaign; 2:47 p.m.: Includes tweets from civil rights activists.