Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to Georgetown University Thursday to explain his views on freedom of expression, and how it influenced Facebook’s policies around dealing with controversial subjects, including political ads that include outright lies.
“I’ve focused on building services to do two things: give people voice, and bring people together,” Zuckerberg said.
In his remarks, the Facebook chief executive referenced Frederick Douglass, the history of free speech in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement, and more recent movements for free expression in North Africa. He contrasted these movements with calls to regulate or restrict speech.
“Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together,” Zuckerberg said. “I think that’s dangerous.”
Zuckerberg’s remarks came at a time of increased focus on how companies like Facebook deal with issues of free speech and content moderation. Conservatives have long criticized social-media companies for allegedly silencing their voices, while more progressive voices have suggested that these companies don’t do enough to stem the distribution of disinformation and hate speech.
In his talk, Zuckerberg tried to position Facebook as a company that is trying to embrace a middle ground: one that errs on the side of free speech, while protecting its users from some of its more extreme examples, including pornography and content promoting terrorism.
“So once we’re taking this content down, the question is: where do you draw the line?” he asked. Zuckerberg went on to acknowledge that offering people a podium for free expression would inevitably lead to abuse. “When you’re serving billions of people, even if a very small percent cause harm, that can still be a lot of harm,” he said, adding that Facebook had been investing a lot into minimizing the spread of harmful and false information.
However, Zuckerberg also argued that Facebook ultimately shouldn’t decide the accuracy of information in a political discourse. Facebook has faced criticism in recent weeks over allowing ads from President Trump’s reelection campaign that had been rejected by news networks as untrue.
“I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” he said on Thursday. “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 went on to argue that free speech was increasingly under attack from governments around the world. He cited China as one example, saying that Facebook wasn’t doing business in the country because it didn’t want to subject itself to Chinese censorship requirements.
Zuckerberg contrasted Facebook’s stance with that of ByteDance, the Chinese owner of short-form video app TikTok, which has been censoring videos about the civil unrest in Hong Kong even outside of China.
But while Zuckerberg singled out China as a threat to free speech, his remarks were clearly also meant to appeal to U.S. lawmakers. In recent days, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren reiterated her call to split up Facebook, while U.S. Attorney General William Barr urged the company to give up on the idea of adding end-to-end encryption to all of its messaging products.