Zuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount

Zuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount
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Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Pressure mounts on Facebook to rein in hate speech | UK, Australia launch joint investigation into facial recognition firm | Amazon removing Redskins merchandise from site Pressure mounts on Facebook to rein in hate speech Facebook civil rights audit finds 'serious setbacks' MORE is in the midst of a public relations blitz as criticism of the company he founded mounts in Washington.

Zuckerberg in recent weeks has made a flurry of public and private appearances to make the case for his company and stave off anger from policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

From livestreaming a Q&A with Facebook staff to meeting with GOP lawmakers and conservative pundits, Zuckerberg has been making the rounds, a sharp break from his company's normal strategy of deploying other high-level executives in moments of crisis.

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In the last week alone, Zuckerberg sat down with Fox News for an interview, met behind closed doors with House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersSupreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress On The Money: Mnuchin, Powell differ over how soon economy will recover | Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress | IRS chief pledges to work on tax code's role in racial wealth disparities Millions fear eviction without more aid from Congress MORE (D-Calif.) and on Thursday delivered a speech at Georgetown University where he painted Facebook as a defender of free speech.

“The future depends on all of us,” he said during his nearly 40-minute speech at Georgetown. “Whether you like Facebook or not, I think we need to recognize what is at stake and come together to stand for voice and free expression at this critical moment.”

It’s a high-stakes gamble for a tech executive who for much of his career has sought to remain out of the public limelight. When Zuckerberg first testified before Congress in 2018 over the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, some critics panned his testimony as robotic. But he emerged largely unscathed despite tough questioning.

Now, he's again taking a more public role in defending his company, which faces a slew of challenges over its market power, privacy policies, an ambitious plan to launch a cryptocurrency, and in its latest controversy — scrutiny over how Facebook handles misleading or false political ads.

Criticism of Facebook's rules has intensified after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE’s campaign ran an ad accusing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' Trump says he'll wear mask during upcoming trip to Walter Reed Latino group 'Mi Familia Vota' launches M voter turnout campaign targeting swing states MORE without evidence of using his office to pressure Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into a company where his son Hunter Biden sat on the board. Facebook declined to remove the ad.

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Progressive activist Ady Barkan endorses Biden, urges him to pick Warren as VP Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Mass.) has been particularly outspoken against the policy, saying it amounts to Facebook being a “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Warren's campaign even ran an ad falsely claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump to draw attention to the controversy.

Facebook has defended the policy, arguing it does not want to decide what political candidates are allowed to say.

Zuckerberg personally defended the policy at Georgetown, saying that he doesn’t “think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”

“Political ads can be an important part of voice, especially for local candidates and up and coming challengers that the media might not otherwise cover,” he added later. “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover.” 

Zuckerberg also pushed back hard on calls to break up Facebook, a centerpiece of Warren's tech policies.

But the response to the speech also highlighted the challenges for Zuckerberg as he takes on a more public role.

Zuckerberg's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Biden's campaign, which said the CEO's talk of free speech amounted to using “the Constitution as a shield for his company’s bottom line.”

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And Bernice King also hit Zuckerberg for mentioning her father, Martin Luther King Jr., in discussing free speech.

“I'd like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians,” she tweeted Thursday. “These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.”

Critics of Facebook have dismissed Zuckerberg's latest outreach.

“The reaction to his speech yesterday was largely negative, in some ways they’re backed in a PR corner,” said Sarah Miller, co-chairwoman of Freedom from Facebook, a coalition of progressive groups calling for breaking up the company. “No matter what they try, I think their press and reputation continues to suffer damage.”

Zuckerberg has also met with a slew of lawmakers ahead of his return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when he will testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Facebook's cryptocurrency project, Libra.

Politico also reported this week that he has been meeting with several conservative figures, including Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (R-S.C.), Fox News host Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonDuckworth says Trump, Carlson questioning her patriotism to distract from president's 'failure to lead our nation' Tammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream DeVos 'very seriously' considering withholding funding from schools that don't reopen MORE and others, many of whom have accused Facebook of anti-conservative bias. Zuckerberg defended those meetings.

"Meeting new people and hearing from a wide range of viewpoints is part of learning," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. "If you haven't tried it, I suggest you do!"

Zuckerberg has also sat down with lawmakers from both parties. Over three days in September he held a number of meetings in Washington, including with some of his company's toughest critics, such as Democratic Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown MORE (Va.) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellOvernight Energy: Supreme Court reinstates fast-track pipeline permit except for Keystone XL | Judge declines to reverse Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE (Wash.) and Republican Sens. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Defense: House Dems offer M for Army to rename bases | Bill takes aim at money for Trump's border wall | Suspect in custody after shooting at Marine training facility  Should the United States withdraw from the WTO? Defense spending bill includes M for Army to change Confederate base names MORE (Mo.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Gianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers to address alarming spike in coronavirus cases MORE (Utah).

But the meetings with conservatives have drawn criticism from some quarters.

“They’ve obviously proven very sensitive to conservative criticism and so I think it’s a part of trying to basically call conservatives off of Facebook,” Miller said.

“I also think the feud with Warren comes into play here — I think there’s a sense that a lot of the Democrats leading the conversation are not persuadable, and so if Democrats have made up their minds on Facebook maybe we can win back some conservative hearts and minds,” Miller added.

“If I was advising Facebook I would say look: Democrats are not going to warm up to you again,” a former technology counsel at the House Energy and Commerce Committee told The Hill. “So you need to suck up to Republicans because that is your best counter to what is likely to be a Democrat at some point in power.”

Many lawmakers, though, have praised Zuckerberg for reaching out.

Warner organized a dinner with top Democrats and Zuckerberg in September. Warner told reporters this week he hopes Zuckerberg is “making sure to continue to see people across the political spectrum.”

But whether Zuckerberg's outreach will temper the anger at Facebook in Washington remains to be seen.

The CEO will face one high-profile test on Wednesday when he testifies before Waters's committee in what will be Zuckerberg's first testimony in Congress since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

In 2018, Zuckerberg's appearance before Congress for two days of testimony was preceded by fervent anticipation. This time, Zuckerberg will be less of a mystery to lawmakers.

“He probably sees himself as putting on a cape and coming to Washington,” the former House counsel said.