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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday ostensibly to advocate for his company’s proposed new cryptocurrency, Libra -- but he faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers on multiple fronts. Facebook's controversial position of allowing false claims in political ads drew particular attention. Amna Nawaz talks to Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived on Capitol Hill in Washington today, and was put on the hot seat about mounting concerns from Republicans and Democrats.
Amna Nawaz has the story.
And, for the record, we should note, the "PBS NewsHour" produces some content as part of a business relationship with Facebook.
It's the first appearance from Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill since lawmakers grilled him over privacy concerns and other issues around Cambridge Analytica a year-and-a-half ago.
Zuckerberg's testimony before the House Financial Services Committee was ostensibly to build support for Facebook's new cryptocurrency project, Libra, a global digital currency originally set to launch next year.
The idea behind Libra is that sending money should be as easy and secure as sending a message. I actually don't know if Libra is going to work, but I believe that it's important to try new things.
I view the financial infrastructure in the United States as outdated.
But that project has drawn harsh criticism and lost support among regulators and the financial industry.
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo.:
Scores of stable partners have dropped out. Why?
Well, Congresswoman, I think you would have to ask them specifically for their…
Rep. Ann Wagner:
Why do you think they dropped out?
I think because it's a — it's a risky project and I think that there's been a lot of scrutiny.
Yes, it's a risky project.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the anger surrounding Facebook.
I get that I'm not the ideal messenger.
But he was hit with criticism on multiple fronts, including his decision to allow false claims in political ads to stay on the platform.
The decision to allow this ad, which is endorsed by President Trump and includes false statements about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, is drawing fierce criticism from Democrats.
Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California grilled the Facebook CEO on the matter.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.:
How does this new policy benefit you? Because it seems that a policy that allows politicians to lie, mislead and deceive would also allow Facebook sell more ads.
From a business perspective, the very small percent of our business that is made up of political ads doesn't come anywhere close to justifying the controversy that this incurs for our company. So this is really not about money.
This is — on principle, I believe in giving people a voice.
Rep. Maxine Waters:
You plan on doing no fact-checking on political ads?
We do not fact-check politicians' speech.
And the reason for that is that we believe that, in a democracy, it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.
Speaking last week at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg strongly defended his decision to allow false or misleading ads, on the grounds of free speech and other principles.
Now, you know, given the sensitivity around political ads, I have considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether.
Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover. But, practically, even if we wanted to ban political ads, it's not even clear where you draw the line.
His speech came after the Biden campaign wrote to Facebook, Twitter and Google asking them to take down the false ad.
Social media companies have been criticized by President Trump and other Republicans as well, who feel conservative voices are silenced on the Internet.
Republican Andy Barr of Kentucky:
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky.:
Will you commit that Facebook will not censor any political ad placed on your platform or in support of President Donald Trump?
We believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. That doesn't just go for Trump. That goes for any of the candidates.
Rep. Andy Barr:
Don't be bullied by politicians who want to censor politically incorrect speech.
In June, the president said he thought the U.S. should sue Facebook and Google for what he says is unfair repression of his political messaging.
President Donald Trump:
Look, we should be suing Google and Facebook and all that, which perhaps we will, OK?
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been taking aim at the social media giant. In a tweet, the Massachusetts senator wrote — quote — "Facebook is actively helping Trump spread lies and misinformation. Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. They might do it again, and profit off of it."
Nearly three years after U.S. intelligence agencies found that Russia and other adversaries used social media to influence the 2016 election, Facebook and Instagram, along with Twitter and Google, are still grappling with how to approach political messaging on their platforms ahead of 2020.
For a closer look at these issues, I'm joined by Vanita Gupta. She is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition representing 220 civil rights groups. She also served as acting assistant attorney general and head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division under President Obama.
We have invited Mr. Zuckerberg to appear on the program as well at a later time.
Vanita Gupta, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Great to be here.
So let's start with Mr. Zuckerberg's defense of that decision to leave political speech, including political ads, up on his platform unchecked. He says it's a matter of free speech, free expression.
What do you say to that?
I think that that is a ruse.
The problem with leaving politicians' speech unchecked, unchecked by fact-checkers, will allow massive voter suppression and misinformation to reign on the platform. And this is a real problem. This isn't kind of a hypothetical issue.
We saw how Facebook was weaponized by foreign actors and domestic actors in 2016. And, right now, this move to totally exempt politicians from the same community standards that you and I would have to abide by, as private actors, is reckless for our democracy.
Is it a slippery slope, though? This is another argument that he makes. If they start to police this and start to decide what is true, what is false.
Do we really want a social media company that doesn't have a journalistic ethos or mission to be the arbiter of what's true and what's false here?
But the reality is, Facebook decided to do this for private citizens in the last couple of years.
They recognized that they are not the government. They are a private company, therefore don't have the same First Amendment obligations in quite the same way.
And, as a private company, they decided that they would actually police hate speech and white supremacist speech and activity on the platform.
What is so troubling here is that they have decided that politicians, who have historically been the very perpetrators of voter suppression throughout our history, are going to be held to a lower standard than you and I are, as private — as private citizens and private Americans.
And that seems incredibly dangerous, in a time where, increasingly, we have politicians that are emboldening and using the world's largest megaphone of this platform to basically spread lies, use fear-mongering and other tactics to chill political participation.
I want to get to a couple other concerns you have raised with them.
You worked with Facebook for years, we should point out. But you have raised concerns about their protection of civil rights, about specific posts that can be used, for example, to discriminate in housing matters, whether the company even has enough diversity in their own ranks.
You spoken with the leadership, with both Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Have you heard anything from them, either in those conversations or in the testimony today, that says they're going to seriously address some of those concerns?
So, the Leadership Conference, the organization I work for, pushed Facebook to actually start a civil rights audit.
A bunch of our organizations were pushing for this. And over the last year, I will say, there had been some progress made. As I said, they had announced a policy to really combat hate on the platform. They were settling some more of the housing litigation and announcing a policy to combat unlawful targeting, racial targeting in their ads policies.
The problem is, is, we were starting to make a little bit of progress on voter and census — fighting — having set Facebook fight voter and census disinformation and misinformation.
But this recent announcement basically has threatened to undermine all of that, because it allows for politicians, as I said, who are the very perpetrators of voter suppression historically, basically to go completely without any checks on them whatsoever.
And what's kind of created this massive cognitive dissonance is, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are saying, no, no, no, Facebook will take the elections and voter suppression very seriously. We will take down when officials might lie about a polling location or poll hours.
What they're failing to recognize is that, in 2019, voter suppression looks a lot more like racial appeals, like deliberate campaigns for misinformation. You could have local officials basically do a coordinated campaign, saying, we were going to have police officers stationed outside of every majority black neighborhood on Election Day.
Or we could have local officials or the president say, you know what, if you fill out the census, and you're Latino, we're going to give your information to ICE.
And what Facebook is saying is, that's fine. Even though it's completeness information, we're going to allow that to stand.
I want to be clear about this, because there is an election at stake here.
They have said, based on what they learned from the last election, they are taking specific steps to try to better protect themselves specifically from foreign interference, for example, letting people know which news comes from state-owned media.
I hear you saying what they have done is not nearly enough.
Yes, they have made their protections against foreign actors more robust, but they're failing to recognize the degree to which domestic actors throughout our history, but particularly now, are weaponizing misinformation and racism to basically have — as a partisan and electoral advantage.
And I think that that is dangerous. Most broadcast news, when they are — they are posting these ads, do have to make decisions around fact-checking. They are requiring disclosures to protect the authenticity of the speaker.
And they are either putting warnings up or quarantining ads that have — that contain misinformation like this. And — but what we are seeing is, this platform is now being allowed to be weaponized, just as it was in 2016, by domestic actors for exactly the kind of behavior that I think is so corrosive to our democracy.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, thanks for being here.
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Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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