“I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently,” Zuckerberg said Thursday in a speech championing freedom of expression. “Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.”
The tech billionaire’s ardent, if ironic, defence of unchecked political speech comes as Facebook faces intensifying criticism over its role in spreading disinformation as another U.S. presidential election approaches.
Facebook was spun from an attractiveness-rating website for college students, despite Zuckerberg’s suggestion the platform had a loftier origin. He argued in Thursday’s speech that Facebook should be viewed as a tool for democracy, providing everyone with an ability “to share their perspectives” and contribute to a more “inclusive society.” He gave nonpolitical examples of people using the site to foster community, such as a church group that used Facebook to coordinate hurricane relief.
“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” Zuckerberg said, lauding Facebook as a democratic institution akin to the free press and the three branches of government.
To make his point, Zuckerberg invoked the censorship tactics used by authoritarian countries such as China. He also mentioned civil rights icons Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose free expression fueled important social movements,
King’s daughter responded disparagingly to the comparison.
“I’d like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians,” Bernice King wrote on Twitter. “These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.”
Facebook provoked sharp condemnation last month when it announced a new policy: The site would not police political ads or politicians’ speech, even if it contained lies and falsehoods. The company refused to remove a video from President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that claims former Vice President Joe Biden “promised Ukraine $1 billion if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” a line prefaced by a directive: “LEARN THE TRUTH.”
Critics say Facebook’s policy will only fuel the spread of misinformation, leading to potentially dangerous consequences for American democracy. To illustrate how the company’s policy encourages lies, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ran a Facebook ad falsely claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump in the 2020 election.
Zuckerberg addressed the threat of misinformation at Georgetown, saying that his company focuses on “making sure complete hoaxes don’t go viral.”
“We especially focus on misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm, like misleading health advice saying if you’re having a stroke, no need to go to the hospital,” he said. “More broadly, though, we’ve found a different strategy works best: focusing on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself.”
Investigations into the extent of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the U.S. led Facebook to promote more transparency, implementing rules so people could better understand exactly who posts things they see on the site.
But Zuckerberg has indicated his company will not shoulder the responsibility of moderating content for potentially harmful lies.
“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.