Look out, here come the Facebook speech police.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not put it that way, of course. But during hours of grueling testimony before two Senate committees Tuesday, he made clear the social media platform is going to become much more aggressive in blocking messages that are deemed harmful.
Zuckerberg testified that Facebook, by the end of the year, will have 20,000 employees dedicated to “content review and security.” Already, the company removes content judged to promote terrorism or specific threats of violence.
He said the company is expanding those efforts to cover “hate speech,” although he acknowledged this poses a bigger challenge.
“Determining whether something is hate speech is very linguistically nuanced, right?” he said. “You need to understand what is a slur and whether something is hateful — not just in English, but a majority of people on Facebook use languages that are different across the world.”
Zuckerberg also said his company is working to develop artificial intelligence (AI) to flag “hate speech.” The company already uses an algorithm to flag terrorist material. He said about 99 percent of material from the Islamic State and al-Qaida gets taken down before anyone sees it.
“Hate speech, I am optimistic that over a five- to 10-year period, we will have AI tools that can get into some of the nuances, the linguistic nuances of certain kinds of content, to be more accurate in flagging things for our systems,” he said. “But today we’re still just not there yet.”
Zuckerberg was trying to reassure senators angry over the role that Facebook ads produced by Russian “troll farms” played during the 2016 election. Senators also pressed Zuckerberg over recent revelations that a personality quiz taken by 300,000 Facebook users allowed a data firm that worked with President Donald Trump’s campaign to collect the personal information of 87 million users.
But a number of Republicans on the Judiciary and Commerce committees expressed concern that targeting “hate speech” could devolve quickly to censorship.
“I worry about a world where you go from violent groups to hate speech in a hurry … You may decide, or Facebook may decide, it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said at one point.
Sasse asked Zuckerberg if he could define hate speech.
“Senator, I think that this is a really hard question, and I think that it’s one of the reasons why we struggle with it,” Zuckerberg said. “There are certain definitions that we have around, you know, calling for violence.”
“There are a great many Americans who are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
Sasse noted that 40 percent of Americans younger than 35 believe the First Amendment is dangerous because people could use their free speech rights to hurt other people. He noted that many people have passionate views on abortion, for instance, and wondered whether Facebook rules could be used to block people from expressing pro-life views.
“I certainly would not want that to be the case,” Zuckerberg said.
Sasse countered that a woman who recently had an abortion might find a Facebook conversation about the issue unsettling.
“It might be, but I don’t think that would fit any of the definitions that we have,” Zuckerberg said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pressed Zuckerberg about perceived bias of the social media giant. He pointed to a 2016 Gizmodo article indicating that Facebook routinely suppressed conservative stories from its trending news items.
Cruz said the company shut down a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page, blocked a Fox News reporter’s page, blocked two dozen Catholic pages, and blocked the Facebook page of Trump-supporting internet personalities Diamond and Silk as “unsafe to the community.”
Said Cruz, “There are a great many Americans who are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
Zuckerberg said his goal is not for Facebook, as a company, to engage in political advocacy.
“I understand where that concern is coming from because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place,” he said. “And this is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company, [it’s] making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do. And I think that it is a fair concern that people would wonder about.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook’s efforts are focusing on a few narrow areas that nearly everyone can agree are bad — foreign interference in U.S. elections, terrorism and expressions of self-harm.
“I am very committed that Facebook is a platform for all ideas,” he said. “That is a very important founding principle of what we do.”
Despite suspicions of conservatives regarding Facebook’s political leanings, some Republicans expressed caution about a muscular role for government — whether it be monitoring content decisions or addressing other issues raised on Tuesday.
“If government takes a heavy-handed approach to fix this problem, then we know very well that the next Facebook, the next thing that you’re going to wake up and worry about how you continue to be relevant as the behemoth that you are today is probably not going to happen,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).