Loyal readers of this column should know there’s one recurring event I just can’t resist writing about. Yes, it happened again. Mark Zuckerberg decided it was a good idea to let the cameras roll and speak to Congress.
The last time this happened was in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in April of last year. In that exhausting, 10-hour-long session, members of Congress put on display their complete ineptitude at asking the important tech-related questions. This time, in scrutinizing the merits of Facebook’s plan to create “Libra”—a new digital currency—the Congressional committee on “Financial Services” put Zuckerberg through the wringer.
What was different this time? Well, for starters Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t in the room last time. During Wednesday’s hearing, Zuckerberg struggled to handle AOC’s typical brand of brutally direct questioning.
The first punches thrown were similar to the previous hearing, focusing first on Cambridge Analytica. Clearly, this took Zuckerberg by surprise, who answered nearly every question regarding the data privacy scandal with some variation of “I don’t know.” These weren’t even hard questions, with the exception of when the AOC plainly asked when Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives had learned of the extent of the issue and Zuckerberg had no answer.
While I could rant about how unacceptable Zuckerberg’s total cluelessness regarding the timeline of events that, according to AOC, had “catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election” is, it wouldn’t really make for interesting reading. Zuckerberg should have been more prepared, and that’s obvious, but what’s far more interesting is the arguments they presented.
Zuckerberg’s position is that Facebook should not be in the business of policing the words of politicians. When asked if there could be a “potential problem with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements”, Zuckerberg’s response was essentially that “lying is bad”, but it would be wrong to intercept a lie and hide it. This is completely in line with Facebook’s position in the past—it shouldn’t be Facebook’s job to mediate the truth. Instead the public should be responsible and informed enough to judge it for themselves.
For Ocasio-Cortez, her very first question highlights the dangers of an unmediated system, asking whether a politician “could … pay to target predominantly black ZIP codes and advertise them the incorrect election date.” It seems obvious that intentional disinformation could be weaponized for electoral purposes in ways not covered by Facebook’s policy to take down only things that threaten “imminent harm.”
So who’s right? I’ve argued in the past and continue to stand by that private companies, much less those with the record of Facebook, should not become the arbiters of truth. We can’t simply hand the keys of what’s fact and what’s fiction over to faceless companies. At the same time, it’d be willfully ignorant to argue situations like the one AOC posits don’t present an exploitable danger to democracy. Zuckerberg might be eager to relinquish responsibility to readers, but it can’t be entirely off of Facebook’s hands either.
Clearly, we need a little bit of compromise. Why does it have to be all or nothing? I have no doubt the talented people at Facebook are smart enough to devise a policy that’s unrestricted by default but can restrict demonstrably false or malicious misinformation. Anything else would be—in Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren’s words— “turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine.”