Mark Zuckerberg is an awkward guy. This is true when he’s giving tours of his house, it’s true when he’s live-streaming himself smoking meats, and it’s especially true whenever Congress is grilling him about how the social media network he created to keep tabs on the relationship status of his crush is facilitating the downfall of Western civilization.
Such was the case Wednesday, when the Facebook CEO was confronted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has already proven herself to be one of the sharpest, most effective inquisitors in the House. And the exchange revealed a core truth about Zuckerberg as he struggles to reckon with how Facebook has been used to subvert democracy:
He has no idea what he’s doing.
Take, for example, how he responded when Ocasio-Cortez tried to determine to what extent Facebook fact-checks political advertisements, a pretty vital issue for the company to get a handle on with 2020 looming. Here’s the exchange from Wednesday’s hearing of the House Financial Services Committee:
Ocasio-Cortez: Could I run ads on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements… I’m just trying to understand the bounds of what is fair game.
Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head.
Ocasio-Cortez: So you don’t know if I’ll be able to do that?
Zuckerberg: I think probably.
Ocasio-Cortez: Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?
Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad. That’s different from it being… from it… in our position the right thing to do to prevent, uhh, your contestants or people in an election from seeing that you had lied…
Ocasio-Cortez: So you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies? It’s a pretty simple yes or no?
Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, in most cases, in a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.
Ocasio-Cortez; So you won’t take them down? You may flag that it’s wrong, but you won’t take it down?
Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, it depends on the context that it shows up… organic posts… ads…
"So, you won't take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that's just a pretty simple yes or no."
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 23, 2019
Not very reassuring. In fact, it’s fucking terrifying, and all but guarantees the platform will be co-opted by bad actors looking to spread disinformation ahead of next year’s elections.
It already has been.
Earlier this month, Judd Legum’s Popular Information reported a change in Facebook’s policy on misinformation that made it easier for political campaigns to lie in the advertisements that run on the platform. Legum highlighted a recent ad purchased by the Trump campaign that included claims about Joe Biden and Ukraine that had been ruled false by Facebook-approved third-party fact-checkers. Under the new policy, the ad was allowed to stand.
Legum noted that in the week since the language of Facebook’s misinformation policy had been revised, the Trump campaign increased its ad spending on the platform “exponentially,” dropping $1.6 million in a seven-day span.
The following week, Elizabeth Warren cleverly pointed out the issue by buying an ad stating that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump for president. It was approved.
We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook. Take a look: pic.twitter.com/7NQyThWHgO
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 12, 2019
As Zuckerberg’s testimony on Wednesday made clear, Facebook didn’t get the message, and it appears the Trump campaign will essentially have carte blanche to use the platform to wage an information war ahead of the 2020 election. As of early October, the campaign had over $150 million in cash on hand with which to do so.
Meanwhile, Facebook is worried about being perceived as biased against conservatives. Last week, Politico reported that Zuckerberg is hosting a series of dinners with prominent right-wing figures, including white nationalists like Tucker Carlson. On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez asked him about the nature of his “ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures” and whether he believes there is a bias. His response wasn’t surprising.
“Congresswoman,” Zuckerberg began, pausing to furrow his brow. “I’m sorry… I don’t remember everything that was in the… that was in the question.”
Ocasio-Cortez moved on.