Mark Zuckerberg faced a mixture of tough and softball questions at yesterday’s Senate hearing. Many questions were left unanswered, and members of the House will have to pick up the slack today.
The toughest questions in the Senate hearing came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who grilled Zuckerberg on Facebook’s political bias, its possible status as the “largest publisher in the world”, and its definition of “hate speech.”
Democrats, when they weren’t urging Zuckerberg to do more to censor so-called “hate speech,” focused on irrelevant panics like Russian propaganda and “fake news”, both of which are unlikely to have had a significant impact on voters in 2016.
1. What is Facebook’s definition of “fake news”?
Sen. Sasse made an effort to press Zuckerberg on his definition of “hate speech,” (Zuckerberg couldn’t give one), but no-one asked the Facebook CEO about his definition of “fake news,” the latest excuse for censorship on the platform. Zuckerberg has given a definition in media interviews, but congressmen looking to expose the weakness of Facebook’s claim that it is not a publisher should highlight some of his, and other Facebook executives recent statments. In particular, Zuckerberg has said he wants to decide what is “quality news” and promote it to users, while the company’s head of news partnerships says they now have a “point of view” on quality news. That sounds far more like a publisher, with an editorial line (a “point of view”) than a neutral platform.
If independent journalism is to exist and thrive on the internet, Facebook cannot be allowed to impose its editorial vision on publications. Here are some related questions members of congress could ask:
- After Gizmodo exposed Facebook’s suppression of conservative news stories in its trending news stories, Facebook then changed the feature to only trend content that corporate media were linking to. Are you intentionally killing off new media publishers to put Establishment Media back in charge?
- Why do conservative media websites seldom show up in Facebook’s trending section, despite the fact that their articles are frequently some of the most viral content on Facebook?
- Why does Facebook use progressive, Soros-funded and Clinton Foundation-funded “fact-check” outfits? Does Facebook have plans to bring in conservative fact-checkers? Does it really believe a fact-checker can be impartial? What steps has Facebook taken to ensure this?
- Why does Facebook’s new fact-check feature allow the Associated Press to divert traffic from publishers whenever it wants to by offering “additional context” that then shuttles readers directly to the AP’s website?
- Originally, when the Clinton campaign hatched its Fake News narrative, you scoffed at the notion that fake news had anything to do with Clinton’s historic defeat. Then you suddenly reversed course. Why the sudden about-face?
- Facebook’s new mission is to promote “broadly trusted” sources and “high quality journalism.” Are any conservative outlets on Facebook’s list? If so, name them.
- Establishment media has soared in Facebook’s engagement ranking since the company shifted its algorithm to favor “trusted sources.” Why is Facebook tipping the scales to favor establishment media? Isn’t the whole point of Facebook to allow users to choose the content they want?
2. What kind of content “makes people feel unsafe,” and why is it banned?
Zuckerberg talked himself into a trap when he told Sen. Cruz that Facebook bans “anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community.” He later had to contradict himself when Sen. Sasse pointed out that college students define a wide swathe of political speech as making them feel “unsafe.” Congressmen looking to expose the ambiguous and arbitrary nature of Facebook’s speech codes, and how easily they can be used to censor political speech, should press Zuckerberg for a clear definition on this.
While they’re at it, the House could also take a leaf out of Sen. Sasse’s book and press Zuck for a clear definition of “hate speech.”
3. Will Facebook be transparent?
Users want transparency on two fronts. They want to know what third-parties have access to their data, especially when they did not consent (this was widespread prior to 2014, thanks to loopholes in Facebook’s data collection rules). The corporate media acknowledges this concern – in fact they can’t stop talking about it. What they won’t acknowledge is another transparency concern: who has Facebook banned, and why? Zuckerberg gave assurances to Sen. Cruz that they seek to avoid political bias. If that’s really true, will they follow Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale’s suggestion, and publish a comprehesive list of censored accounts, along with the reasons for censorship? Then the public (and congressmen) can see for themselves if Facebook applies its rules in a non-biased manner.
If @facebook really cares about not looking like a censor. They should post all blocked and banned posts/users in a special area that is viewable by a select group of diverse Americans. Right, left, and all types of social groups. Transparency!
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) April 10, 2018
Furthermore, the mostly tech-illiterate lawmakers who questioned Zuckerberg on Tuesday let him wriggle out of questions about Facebook’s aggressive data collection tactics. They asked generically, does “Facebook” or do “you” listen to my private conversations with my phone? No one nailed Zuckerberg down on specifics: Does Facebook listen in when I’m not taking a video? Does Messenger listen in to my calls? Does Messenger listen in when I’m not on a call? Does Instagram listen in when I’m not taking a video? Does WhatsApp listen in on my calls? Does WhatsApp listen in when I’m not on a call?
And, speaking of WhatsApp, if Zuckerberg can claim that all messages are encrypted and Facebook does not collect data from them, the obvious followup that no one asked is: how does the company monetize that app?
4. Why are American users compelled to follow European hate speech rules on the country’s monopoly social media provider?
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked a question on the minds of many: is Facebook a monopoly? Imposing European-style “hate speech” rules on users might be defensible if Facebook was a small forum with a few thousand users, but it isn’t. It has 2 billion users worldwide, and no serious competitor in the American market. It does have a video-hosting competitor, YouTube, but YouTube’s restrictions on hate speech are becoming just as stringent as Facebook’s. In the modern world, an increasing amount of speech, both political and non-political, takes place on large social platforms. If congressmen want the first amendment to be more than mere words on paper, they must start pressing Zuckerberg on the practicalities of opening Facebook up to genuine free speech.
When questioned by Sen. Sasse, Zuckerberg refused to give a clear definition of hate speech, lamely opining that the term referred to different types of speech in different countries. This is unacceptable – Facebook wants to ban hate speech on its platform, yet its CEO can’t even define what it is! If it means different things in different countries, Congress should ask Zuckerberg what it means in America, and why citizens governed by the first amendment shold be expected to avoid it.
5. Did Facebook give special favors to the Obama campaign in 2012?
Barack Obama’s former director of media analytics, Carol Davidsen, says that Facebook allowed them to harvest data on the “entire social network of the U.S.” in 2012. The Republicans, said Davidsen, never built an app at the same time to do the same thing, and Facebook shut off the feature before they could do so. Furthermore, Davidsen says that Facebook representatives visited Obama’s offices after the 2012 election, where they admitted that Obama had been allowed to “do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do, because they were on our side.”
Harvesting the “entire social network of the U.S.” is a big admission. Facebook granting the Obama campaign special favors is even bigger – and, according to a former FEC commissioner, a potential violation of federal campaign law. Republican congressmen who don’t want the Democrats to dominate the narrative on data privacy should hit Zuckerberg hard on the Obama question – not least because he’s never addressed it publicly.
6. Why was Palmer Luckey fired?
Thanks to James Damore’s lawsuit against Google, the issue of political discrimination (especially in Silicon Valley) is big and getting bigger. Zuckerberg conceded to Sen. Cruz that Silicon Valley is a “very left-leaning place,” but firmly rejected the idea that Palmer Luckey had been fired because of his support for Donald Trump.
Google denies that they fired Damore for political reasons too, but no-one believes them. In Palmer Luckey’s case, we have a man who single-handedly revived the VR industry with his Oculus headset, which became one of the most successful Kickstarter-funded projects in history, and was later sold to Facebook. Oculus is now one of the most talked-about gaming brands, and spawned competing products from Sony, Valve, and HTC. If Facebook didn’t fire him because of the leftist backlash over his pro-Trump views, why did they fired him? Zuckerberg didn’t tell the Senate, but he should be asked again. And again.
Zuckerberg should also be pressed to make commitments to political diversity, a far more important form of diversity than is currently emphasized at the company. If Zuckerberg is serious about tackling political bias (and he assured Sen. Cruz that he was), he should start keeping track of his employees’ political affiliations. Especially in the teams responsible for enforcing Facebook’s terms of service and banning users.