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Democrats increase pressure on Facebook over content policies and Trump posts

In letter to Zuckerberg, House Dems also question the company’s paid advertising policies and ‘micro-targeting’ practices

Mark Zuckerberg,  chairman and CEO of Facebook, arrives to testify before the House on Oct. 23, 2019.
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, arrives to testify before the House on Oct. 23, 2019. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Facebook is emerging as a key target of Democrats who say the social media giant’s passive approach to President Donald Trump’s provocative online statements is endangering American lives and the state of American democracy.

In the two weeks since Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined to take action on a post by Trump that appeared to endorse the shooting of protesters against police brutality who engaged in looting, Democrats in Congress and former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee to run against Trump, have turned on Facebook’s content policies.

In a letter to Zuckerberg last week, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., and other House Democrats wrote that the company’s response to violent content and the spread of disinformation on its platform, such as Trump’s recent false statements about mail-in voting, “are extremely troubling.”

Internal opposition

The company’s decision not to remove Trump’s post was met with opposition from within Facebook’s own ranks and stood in stark contrast to action by other social media platforms such as Twitter, which labeled both of Trump’s statements in violation of its content policies.

“This highlights a possible negligent obfuscation of responsibility to your team, your shareholders, and your users,” Cleaver and the other Democrats wrote. “It also underscores a likely pattern of practice in failing to appropriately balance free speech against public safety and the general welfare of users.”

Cleaver’s co-signers included Democratic Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is leading an antitrust investigation of Facebook and other technology companies by the House Judiciary Committee, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who questioned Zuckerberg about the spread of false information on the website when he testified on Capitol Hill last year.

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The Democrats also questioned the company’s paid advertising policies and its “micro-targeting” practices, which allow advertisers to aim their messages at specific users based on data collected by Facebook. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and others have derided the system as a “disinformation-for-profit machine” since Trump’s reelection campaign has spent millions on Facebook advertising.

“We are of the belief that Facebook’s failure to limit political micro-targeting already works to the favor of those who pay your company to run hyper-partisan and divisive advertisements regardless of their factual accuracy,” Cleaver and the Democrats wrote.

Company executives, including Zuckerberg, have shied away from policies that could appear to censor Trump, arguing that it is not the company’s role to moderate political speech.

No arbiter of truth

“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with Fox News last month. “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

The position has led to defections by Facebook employees, who organized virtual walkouts in the wake of Trump’s posts. Some employees resigned.

“Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie,” said one former employee, Timothy Aveni, in a post explaining his decision to leave the company. “Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act on increasingly dangerous rhetoric.”

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, also took issue with Zuckerberg’s position.

“Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves,” Dorsey said in a Twitter post. “More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Biden petition

Biden’s campaign, which has repeatedly clashed with Facebook, began circulating a petition last week that asked Facebook to change its policies “to ensure we have a fair election this November.”

The company “continues to allow Donald Trump to say anything — and to pay to ensure that his wild claims reach millions of voters,” the petition says. “Trump and his allies have used Facebook to spread fear and misleading information about voting, attempting to compromise the means of holding power to account: our voices and our ballot boxes.”

The campaign suggested the company commit to a two-week period before Election Day during which paid political advertisements would undergo required fact-checking before posting to Facebook.

“Anything less will render Facebook a tool of misinformation that corrodes our democracy,” the campaign said. “Facebook has promised better. And American voters deserve better.”

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