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Zuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg 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.
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 Waters (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 Trump's campaign ran an ad accusing former Vice President Joe Biden 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 Warren (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."
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 Graham (R-S.C.), Fox News host Tucker Carlson 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 Warner (Va.) and Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Lee (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.