Special: What role will social media play in the 2020 election?

Oct. 25, 2019 AT 9:38 p.m. EDT

After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s policy on misinformation to lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, the panelists discussed the position social media platforms could play in the upcoming presidential election.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill, defending Facebook’s policy on misinformation. What role will social media play in the 2020 election? This is the Washington Week Extra.

Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa. The role of social media in the 2020 election has come under scrutiny as bipartisan voices have sought to address the spread of disinformation on their platforms. Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have criticized Facebook for allowing President Trump’s campaign to run ads with false claims, including one about former Vice President Joe Biden. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified this week before Congress and faced questions about how his platform will handle political speech in 2020 ahead of the election. Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pressed Zuckerberg on Facebook’s decision not to fact check political ads.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact checking on political advertisements?

FACEBOOK CEO MARK ZUCKERBERG: (From video.) Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad. That’s different from it being – from it – from – in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.

MR. COSTA: Zuckerberg’s hearing came as 47 state AGs announced an antitrust probe into Facebook this week.

Joining me tonight, Karoun Demirjian, congressional and national security reporter for The Washington Post; Catherine Lucey, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios.

Amna, you’ve reported on Zuckerberg’s visit. What did we learn? What mattered?

AMNA NAWAZ: We learned that despite the fact that Facebook has a mechanism for fact checking, which is they outsource it through a third party to try to mitigate the misinformation and obvious, like, bad, manipulated videos and memes that go up on their platform, they have made an exemption for political ads and political speech. And the argument being made by Mark Zuckerberg is that this is an issue of free expression and free speech, and if we start policing political speech we’re actually hurting the democratic process; it helps incumbents, it helps people who get a lot of national attention already if we start figuring out what is true and what is not, and censoring what should come down or not. If they put a lie out, it’s up to the American people to see that they’re putting a lie out and make a decision based on that.

MR. COSTA: And is Facebook going to change its ways on interference and dealing with foreign interference for 2020? Has Congress been pressing them on that front?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: I mean, you know, rhetorically there’s been pressure like this when he comes up to Capitol Hill, and certainly that’s been building. I mean, you compare this to the first time he came to the Hill, it was kind of he was teaching the lawmakers how Facebook worked, and now they’re – they know and they’re pushing back and saying it’s not working up to our standards. But look, there is no momentum right now to pass any of these bills that would actually police disclosure rules or, you know, the way that the algorithm work(s) or anything like that, or actually put in any sort of standards that Facebook would have to hop to and comply to. So it’s been a public shaming campaign, not really a legislative campaign at this point, and I don’t necessarily see that changing because it’s been – those bills have been so mired in this partisan process of what does it mean for the legitimacy of the last election more so than the questions about the upcoming one and how to better safeguard against that that, especially at an impeachment time, I don’t know how that shifts to actually break the logjam.

MR. COSTA: What about the Trump campaign’s use of Facebook? How critical is Facebook for Trump 2020?

JONATHAN SWAN: Facebook is not ancillary; it’s actually at the center of their campaign. Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, views Facebook as the keystone to their victory in 2016. He was the digital director now, and now he’s the campaign manager. And Democrats are actually quite worried, and they should be, because the Trump campaign used Facebook brilliantly. People on both sides recognize that. And they did it at such a scale, they spent so much money on Facebook that when you talk to the people who are involved in this and who know how it works and who on the campaign have had exposure to it, it’s only when you use Facebook at that scale that you can do the level of experimentation and modulation that you start to understand how to perfect it for fundraising and for all of these other motivational changing behavior, et cetera, et cetera. Who would have thought – who would have thought, heading into 2020, that the Republican would have the advantage in digital over the Democrat? (Laughter.) It’s really important. And he’s struggling.

MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with that. Why, Catherine, then is he not only spending more money – but why is the president so critical of social media as being to the left, if it’s so important for his campaign?

MS. LUCEY: Well, both things can be true. I mean, the president’s campaign is spending more than any of the Democrats. They’ve spent huge amounts on Facebook, and they’ll continue to do so. And the president has been critical of social media. He has repeated a lot of conservative concerns that these platforms are biased towards conservatives. But he has also talked a lot about how he loves that he can sort of directly get his message to the people via Twitter. And he recently met with Zuckerberg at the White House.

MR. SWAN: He goes pretty light on Facebook. It’s really Amazon that gets the brunt of it, and Twitter to some extent, and Google. He’s actually pretty gentle with Facebook, comparatively speaking. (Laughter.) They’ve been good to him.

MR. COSTA: But we saw Representative Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t gentle on Facebook.

MS. LUCEY: No. No, I mean, I think, as was said, they’re going to continue to get political pressure. But it’s not really clear how this is going to play out in terms of the 2020 race. We’re also seeing the candidates, you know, trying to put pressure on Facebook. Elizabeth Warren has been making a lot of noise about how they should be doing different things around factchecking. But as of right now, it’s not clear how that’s going to play out.

MR. COSTA: And when you think about Representative Ocasio-Cortez in 2020, are we seeing a populist moment when it comes to big tech from both right and left, a push from the left to make them social utilities regulated by the federal government? Just intense pressure. And how do you see that playing out, based on your reporting on it?

MS. NAWAZ: So that’s the debate now, right? It’s, like, when you have – there’s clearly some kind of problem here. How do you address it? Is it more regulation? Is it breaking it up? To Karoun’s point, I don’t think there’s any appetite to actually do anything about it. So it just continues to be pressure, and talk, and information, but not a lot of action. Facebook will say, look, we’ve actually taken a lot of steps to try to mitigate the foreign interference, at the very least, for the upcoming elections. They say they now have ways that people can identify whether or not things are coming from state-sponsored media or not. I think a lot of this is going to be on sort of user beware platforms and actions. People will have to know what they’re looking at. But nothing is really going to change substantially on Facebook because what they’re doing right now works for them.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: It’s also just not that transparent. I mean, the other AOC exchange had to do with whether Daily Caller was a legitimate entity to be policing certain posts on Facebook.

MS. NAWAZ: As a factchecker, yeah.

MS. DEMIRJIAN: Right, exactly. And that was a back and forth. And, you know, it’s – we don’t know how Facebook works. So there are these promises that come out from Zuckerberg periodically when he comes up to the Hill to make these defenses, or when there’s court cases, et cetera. But fundamentally speaking, it’s kind of whose word do you take? And do you shift your practices and what you like doing, showing, you know, your grandmother posting her pictures – and not just that too – and different platforms appeal to different, you know, subsections of the population who probably vote in different ways as well.

But it’s becoming – the other element of this is just in any other time, you know, Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill would have gripped everybody. And I don’t think that it was anybody’s number-one issue that they were watching right now. It’s become a common practice thing that just happens periodically, that we talk about, and we go back to focusing on everything that’s far more dramatic, that’s happening in the Middle East, and impeachment, and everything else like that. And that makes it even less likely that there’s going to be really a critical mass to change something in the next year.

MR. COSTA: We’ll end it there. (Laughter.) So you’re saying, impeachment, tough for the White House, good for Facebook. (Laughter.)

MS. DEMIRJIAN: I don’t know if I’d go that far. But, you know, not a number-one issue anymore.

MR. COSTA: Anyway, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And see you next time.


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