Employees fear Zuckerberg’s commitment to free speech is more about protecting the president than the company’s ideals.
In late 2019, during one of Mark Zuckerberg’s many trips to Washington to defend Facebook in front of Congress, he stopped for a private dinner with Donald Trump and offered the president a titillating statistic. “I’d like to congratulate you,” Zuckerberg said. “You’re No. 1 on Facebook.”
At least that’s the story as told by Trump, on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in January. Trump is technically not the top politician by followers on Facebook. That would be former President Barack Obama. But as the country’s most powerful newsmaker and the person in charge of a government that’s been aggressively pursuing antitrust cases against big tech companies, he does have leverage over Zuckerberg. So the chief executive officer could be forgiven for flattering Trump. Any moment that the president is happy with Facebook is a moment he’s not pursuing hostile regulation—or more likely, sparking a bad news cycle.
Facebook Inc. declined to comment on whether Zuckerberg indeed told Trump he was No. 1 and, if so, in what category he meant, but it’s adamant that its founder isn’t playing favorites. After the New York Times speculated that the dinner between Zuckerberg and Trump might have involved a deal over whether Facebook would fact-check the president, Zuckerberg said he was simply stopping by the White House because he was in town. “The whole idea of a deal is pretty ridiculous,” he told Axios in July.
Longtime current and former employees say this denial may be a bit misleading. Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election. “Facebook, more so than other platforms, has gone out of its way to not ruffle feathers in the current administration,” says Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an organization making recommendations to tech companies on public-policy issues.
“At best, you could say it’s willful negligence.”
The pattern hasn’t been confined to U.S. politics. A Facebook executive in India was accused in August of granting special treatment to a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who’d called for violence against Rohingya Muslim immigrants. (It was only after the Wall Street Journal reported on the posts that the company banned the lawmaker, T. Raja Singh.) A memo from a former employee, published by BuzzFeed on Sept. 14, detailed how Facebook had ignored or delayed taking action against governments using fake accounts to mislead their citizens. “I have blood on my hands,” she wrote.
“You can continuously see the challenge of them trying to have these kinds of broad principles around free expression and stopping harm, and then that mixing with the realpolitik of trying to keep the executive branch happy,” said Alex Stamos, the former top security executive at Facebook, at a conference in June. Facebook executives say their only loyalty is to free speech. “The idea that there is systematic or deliberate political bias in our decisions I really don’t think is borne out by the facts,” says Nick Clegg, head of policy and communications. “Of course, there are isolated cases.”
Sarah Frier & Kurt Wagner – Bloomberg – September 17, 2020.