Mark Zuckerberg faced a mixture of tough and softball questions at yesterday’s Senate hearing. Many questions were left unanswered, and members of the House will have to pick up the slack today.
The toughest questions in the Senate hearing came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who grilled Zuckerberg on Facebook’s political bias, its possible status as the “largest publisher in the world”, and its definition of “hate speech.”
Democrats, when they weren’t urging Zuckerberg to do more to censor so-called “hate speech,” focused on irrelevant panics like Russian propaganda and “fake news”, both of which are unlikely to have had a significant impact on voters in 2016.
1. What is Facebook’s definition of “fake news”?
Sen. Sasse made an effort to press Zuckerberg on his definition of “hate speech,” (Zuckerberg couldn’t give one), but no-one asked the Facebook CEO about his definition of “fake news,” the latest excuse for censorship on the platform. Zuckerberg has given a definition in media interviews, but congressmen looking to expose the weakness of Facebook’s claim that it is not a publisher should highlight some of his, and other Facebook executives recent statments. In particular, Zuckerberg has said he wants to decide what is “quality news” and promote it to users, while the company’s head of news partnerships says they now have a “point of view” on quality news. That sounds far more like a publisher, with an editorial line (a “point of view”) than a neutral platform.
If independent journalism is to exist and thrive on the internet, Facebook cannot be allowed to impose its editorial vision on publications. Here are some related questions members of congress could ask:
2. What kind of content “makes people feel unsafe,” and why is it banned?
Zuckerberg talked himself into a trap when he told Sen. Cruz that Facebook bans “anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community.” He later had to contradict himself when Sen. Sasse pointed out that college students define a wide swathe of political speech as making them feel “unsafe.” Congressmen looking to expose the ambiguous and arbitrary nature of Facebook’s speech codes, and how easily they can be used to censor political speech, should press Zuckerberg for a clear definition on this.
While they’re at it, the House could also take a leaf out of Sen. Sasse’s book and press Zuck for a clear definition of “hate speech.”
3. Will Facebook be transparent?
Users want transparency on two fronts. They want to know what third-parties have access to their data, especially when they did not consent (this was widespread prior to 2014, thanks to loopholes in Facebook’s data collection rules). The corporate media acknowledges this concern – in fact they can’t stop talking about it. What they won’t acknowledge is another transparency concern: who has Facebook banned, and why? Zuckerberg gave assurances to Sen. Cruz that they seek to avoid political bias. If that’s really true, will they follow Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale’s suggestion, and publish a comprehesive list of censored accounts, along with the reasons for censorship? Then the public (and congressmen) can see for themselves if Facebook applies its rules in a non-biased manner.