Analysis: From Warren to Trump, Regulatory Oversight Encircles Facebook

Earlier this month, Facebook rolled back a key advertising policy that prohibited “deceptive, false or misleading content,” only banning ads that had been debunked by third-party fact-checkers. 

In a separate policy, the tech giant exempted ads “with the primary purpose of expressing the opinion or agenda of a political figure” from verification—in effect, giving political candidates the green light to disseminate misinformation.

To protest the policies and illustrate how they could be exploited, Elizabeth Warren published a false ad on the website that claimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump’s reelection.

“We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved,” Warren tweeted. “It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook.”

In response, Zuckerberg said the new policies aimed to enhance free speech within Facebook’s community guidelines. During a speech last week, Zuckerberg said, “I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Facebook has faced a number of regulatory threats from around the globe. In July, the company was fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations and its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And during a Wall Street Journal Tech Live summit on Tuesday, Makan Delrahim, the head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, said breaking up big-tech companies was “perfectly on the table.”

Meanwhile, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that member countries can order Facebook to remove defamatory content worldwide. The EU also introduced legislation to block Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, Libra, over fears it could potentially undermine the euro.

Zuckerberg has attempted to quell concerns by increasing transparency with journalists and establishing a policy of fact-checking political speech, barring the new exemption of politicians’ speech. Additionally, the company has promised to establish an independent oversight board, which will have the authority to override Zuckerberg and is scheduled to start hearing appeals to content decisions early next year.

In March, Warren proposed breaking up big-tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. Her proposal was later endorsed by Chris Huges, Facebook’s co-founder, which intensified public scrutiny of the company. Other 2020 Democratic candidates have also unveiled similar plans.

Days later, when Warren’s campaign started promoting the proposal with ads on Facebook, the social network removed them, citing improper use of their corporate logo, causing the Democrat to gain the support of an unlikely ally: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The ads were later restored in the spirit of “allowing robust debate,” a spokesperson told Politico.

Zuckerberg later shot back over the prospect of an antitrust legal action from a potential Warren administration, telling employees during a July meeting, “I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah.” In the leaked audio recording of the meeting, obtained by The Verge, the Facebook founder is heard saying, “if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”

After the audio leaked, Warren posted a tweet slamming Zuckerberg’s comments. 

“What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy,” she said. 

In light of heightened scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, Zuckerberg met last month with Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill to discuss technology regulation. Since July, Zuckerberg has also been having private meetings with conservative personalities and lawmakers, including Fox News Host Tucker Carlson and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

According to a former government official who spoke to Politico, Zuckerberg is fearful of antitrust threats from both the Trump administration and a potential Democratic administration should Trump lose the 2020 election.

“The discussion in Silicon Valley is that Zuckerberg is very concerned about the Justice Department, under Bill Barr, bringing an enforcement action to break up the company,” the official said. “So the fear is that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the Trump administration by not cracking down on right-wing propaganda.”

But to the extent that Zuckerberg’s efforts at conciliation have made inroads, the administration has sought to downplay them, with one official telling Politico “[the] White House is looking for meaningful steps from Facebook on a number of fronts,” which include competition, privacy and free speech “for everybody including conservatives.”

“Nominal outreach won’t cut it,” the official said.

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