Facebook CEO takes no questions from press at event promoting free expression

Reporters were not allowed to ask questions after Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Reporters were not allowed to ask questions after Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has drawn criticism after restrictions were placed on news coverage of an event he was speaking at to promote free expression.

Reporters were not allowed to ask questions after Mr Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The only questions that were allowed came from students and were filtered by a moderator.

Facebook and Georgetown barred news organisations from filming, though they were able to send still photographers. The only options for video were a livestream on Georgetown’s social media site or footage made available by Facebook.

Live from Georgetown — Standing For Voice and Free Expression.Live from Georgetown — Standing For Voice and Free Expression.Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute and a former state prosecutor, said: “The key to free expression is to not have one company control the flow of speech to more than 2 billion people, using algorithms that amplify disinformation in order to maximise profits.”

Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies are trying to oversee internet content while also avoiding infringing on First Amendment rights.

The pendulum has swung recently toward restricting hateful speech that could spawn violence. The shift follows mass shootings in which the suspects have posted racist screeds online or otherwise expressed hateful views or streamed images of attacks.

Facebook has also come under criticism for not doing enough to filter out phoney political ads.

“Right now, we’re doing a very good job at getting everyone mad at us,” Mr Zuckerberg told the packed hall at Georgetown.

He said serious threats to expression are coming from places such as China, where social media platforms used by protesters are censored, and from court decisions restricting the location of internet users’ data in certain countries.

“I’m here today because I believe that we must continue to stand for free expression,” he said. “You should be able to say things that other people don’t like, but you shouldn’t be able to say things that put people in danger.”

Taking note of mounting criticism of the market dominance of Facebook and other tech giants, Mr Zuckerberg acknowledged the companies’ centralised power but said it is also “decentralised by putting it directly into people’s hands. … Giving people a voice and broader inclusion go hand in hand.”

John Stanton, a former fellow at Georgetown who heads a group called the Save Journalism Project, called the CEO’s appearance “a joke”.

Mr Zuckerberg “is the antithesis of free expression,” Mr Stanton said. “He’s thrown free speech, public education and democracy to the wayside in his thirst for power and profit.”

The social media giant, with nearly 2.5 billion users around the globe, is under heavy scrutiny from politicians and regulators following a series of data privacy scandals, including lapses in opening the personal data of millions of users to US President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Facebook and other social media platforms have drawn accusations from Mr Trump and his allies that their platforms are steeped in anti-conservative bias.

Mr Zuckerberg recently fell into a tiff with US senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, who ran a fake political ad on Facebook taking aim at the CEO.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University
Mark Zuckerberg came into criticism for not taking questions from press (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Ms Warren has proposed breaking up big tech companies. With the phoney ad, she was protesting Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking politicians’ speech or ads in the same way it enlists outside parties to fact-check news stories and other posts.

Facebook responded to Ms Warren’s move by tweeting that the Federal Communications Commission “doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech. We agree it’s better to let voters — not companies — decide”.