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Mark Zuckerberg said a lot of nothing in his big speech

Does it matter if you’re being transparent if you aren’t really saying anything?

Mark Zuckerberg, standing behind a lectern at Georgetown University, talks about free expression.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leads a conversation on free expression at Georgetown University on October 17, 2019, in Washington, DC. 
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg is on a transparency tour. Earlier this month, the Facebook CEO held a livestreamed version of the social media company’s normally closed employee Q&As. And on Thursday, he streamed a live talk at Georgetown University about the company’s decisions not to ban outright false political ads and about free speech in general.

But all these attempts at transparency aren’t happening in a vacuum. The open Q&A was a response to The Verge publishing audio and transcripts from one of these internal meetings. The free speech talk came after Politico reported that Zuckerberg was having dinners with conservative pundits and after Facebook has received flak for letting President Trump post false political ads.

And, perhaps more importantly, what Zuckerberg is saying doesn’t seem to be new or at all revealing. Does it matter if you’re being transparent if you aren’t really saying anything?

What he did talk about were concepts we’re all very familiar with.

On Thursday, Zuckerberg talked about the importance of free speech — giving people a voice — and how it brings people together. “More people being able to share their experiences and perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society,” he said.

He said “together” 14 times in a 40-minute speech.

He defended Facebook’s increasingly indefensible decision to publish political ads that contain lies, saying that to do otherwise would be putting too much power in the hands of tech company. It’s a continuation of Facebook’s “we’re a platform, not a publisher” line.

“And while I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judged to be 100 percent true,” Zuckerberg said on Thursday. “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover.”

He also downplayed the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 election on Facebook and suggested the real concern was not the content but that Russian actors were posting it.

“The solution here is to verify the identities of anyone who’s getting a wide amount of distribution and to get a lot better at identifying and taking down fake accounts,” he said. “So we now require you to provide a government ID and to prove your location if you want to run political ads.”

It might be a good time to remember that Zuckerberg, after the 2016 election, didn’t believe that disinformation campaigns on Facebook had an impact on the election — a stance he gradually reversed.

Zuckerberg also reiterated that Facebook is using AI to find and take down fake accounts — a drum he has been beating as a solution for Facebook’s many ills.

He also mentioned again how Facebook is establishing an independent oversight board to hear appeals of the content moderation decisions Facebook does make (all the time).

One thing that did seem to be new was Facebook’s origin story. Instead of a follow-up to his site that rated his fellow Harvard students’ attractiveness, Zuckerberg told the Georgetown audience that the idea arose amid uncertainty about the Iraq war, which shaped his “belief that giving more people a voice gives power to the powerless and pushes society to get better over time.”

Overall, Zuckerberg strung a lot of words together that sounded nice and were inoffensive, but they fell far short of showing that Facebook is willing to make the real hard decisions it would take to make its platform healthy. “I believe in giving people a voice because at the end of the day I believe in people,” he said. (Some have suggested that Facebook could actually fix some of its problems by changing its algorithm so it doesn’t prioritize engagement, which often is highest among divisive topics like abortion and guns — and fake news.)

Rather, it seems that all of this transparency is instead Facebook taking a defensive position as the good guy with nothing to hide. These attempts at transparency are really just a response to critics like presidential frontrunner Elizabeth Warren, who wants to break up the company. It also seems like a cover for not having fixed a whole lot since 2016.

Facebook has yet to share the extensive information it promised about disinformation on the platform after the 2016 election. And foreign actors are still finding ways to exploit the platform. China has been using it in an information war over the Hong Kong protests. Networks in Iran have been spreading disinformation to the US and Britain. Facebook has since taken down the offending accounts and posts.

Of course, people will be mad no matter what Facebook does. It appears that in reaction, Facebook is choosing not to do much of anything.

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

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