Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Zuck Testified Before the House Financial Services Committee and It Did Not Go Well for Him

Tony Romm, Washington Post:

Congressional lawmakers delivered a broad lashing of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, sniping at his company’s plans to launch a digital currency, its pockmarked track record on privacy and diversity, and its struggles to prevent the spread of misinformation.

The wide-ranging criticisms came largely from Democrats during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, which convened the session to probe Facebook’s plan to launch a cryptocurrency, called Libra. Facebook’s efforts have catalyzed a rare alignment of opposition from the party’s members of Congress and some Trump administration officials, who are concerned Libra could trouble the global financial system.

Quickly, though, the hearing expanded in focus, reflecting the simmering frustrations on Capitol Hill with practically the entirety of Facebook’s business. […]

The questions from the most prepared representatives today were illuminating and appeared to take Mark “I’m Not Sure” Zuckerberg by surprise.

Cecilia Kang, Mike Isaac, and Nathaniel Popper, New York Times:

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, pointed to Facebook’s promise in its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 to keep the messaging app separate from the main Facebook platform. A few years later, Mr. Zuckerberg announced it would merge data between the two apps.

“Do you understand why this record makes us concerned with Facebook entering the cryptocurrency space? Have you learned that you should not lie?” Ms. Velázquez said.

“Congresswoman, I would disagree with the characterization,” he said before getting cut off by further questions.

Rep. Katie Porter had one of the most memorable exchanges:

Rep. Porter: Facebook’s known as a great place to work: free food, ping pong tables, great employee benefits. But Facebook doesn’t use its employees for the hardest jobs in the company. You’ve got about 15,000 contractors watching murders, stabbings, suicides, and other gruesome, disgusting videos for content moderation — correct?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, I believe that’s correct.

Rep. Porter: You pay many of those workers under $30,000 per year, and you’ve cut them off from mental health care when they leave the company, even if they have PTSD because of their work for your company. Is that correct?

Zuckerberg: Um, congresswoman, my understanding is that we pay everyone, including the contractors associated with the company, at least a $15 minimum wage. In markets and cities with a high cost of living, that’s a $20 minimum wage. We go out of our way to offer a lot of —

Rep. Porter: Thank you, I take your word at the wage. Reclaiming my time. According to one report I have — and this is straight out of an episode of Black Mirror — these workers get nine — nine — minutes of supervised wellness time per day. That means nine minutes to cry in the stairwell while someone watches them. Would you be willing to commit to spending one hour a day for the next year watching these videos and acting as a content monitor, and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?

Zuckerberg: Uh — congresswoman, we work hard to make sure we give good benefits to all of the folks who are doing this.

Rep. Porter: Mr. Zuckerberg — reclaiming my time — I would appreciate a yes or a no. Would you be willing to act as a content monitor — to have that life experience?

Zuckerberg: I’m not sure it would best serve our community for me to spend that much time —

Rep. Porter: Reclaiming my time. Mr. Zuckerberg, are you saying you’re not qualified to be a content monitor?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, that’s not what I’m saying.

I can’t work out whether the expression on Zuckerberg’s face when he delivered that last line is one of frustrated politeness, or if he was smirking because he saw where Rep. Porter was going with her line of questioning.

One topic that kept coming up today was Facebook’s recent loosening of a longtime ban on falsehoods in political ads.

The Times, again:

Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook’s desire not to fact-check political campaign advertising.

Ms. Tlaib said the practice had resulted in widespread hate-mongering and a flurry of false information about her, personally. “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So, I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year. Under your policy — you know, and using census data as well — could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise to them the incorrect election date?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, you couldn’t. We have — even for these policies around the newsworthiness of content that politicians say, and the general principle that I believe that —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: But you said you’re not going to fact check my ads.

Zuckerberg: If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that can cause — that is calling for violence, or could risk imminent physical harm, or voter or census suppression — when we roll out the census suppression policy — we will take that content down.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: So you will — there is some threshold where you will fact-check political advertisements. Is that what you’re telling me?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, for specific things like that where there is imminent risk of harm —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?

Zuckerberg: Sorry, can you repeat that?

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements — I’m just trying to understand the bounds here. What’s fair game?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably.

I struggle with this policy shift. I’ve previously argued that this clearly benefits bad faith arguments and politicians that have a most tenuous relationship with facts. I think it’s especially worrying that advertisements on Facebook can be highly targeted, so lies can be broadcast to much smaller groups of individuals and, therefore, being easier to evade detection. In the recent Canadian election, both the Liberal Party and Conservative Party targeted ads containing lies at Chinese-language Facebook users. That’s obviously appalling, as are the threats towards Rep. Tlaib that she says result from ads containing falsehoods.

There is no easy segue here, but I do wish to point out two things. First, I struggle to believe that Facebook would be an effective moderator of the truth. Also, Facebook’s policy shift brings the website in alignment with longstanding policy that generally exempts politicians from false advertising standards — this is also true for Canadian ads. Legally, politicians can lie in ads all they want about their own record or their opponents’ as long as they play dumb when asked about it, but overestimating the lifespan of lightbulbs is verboten. Oh, and you can claim that your drink comprising over 99% apple and grape juice is a pomegranate blueberry blend — that’s fine, too.

Facebook struggles with content moderation at a base level; expecting them to fact check politicians’ advertisements around the world seems like an implausible stretch. That’s not to say that Facebook should do nothing: I think it would be helpful to remove the ability to target political advertising by anything other than country and language. I also see the need for greater action against advertising falsehoods, because lying to consumers is a form of fraud in myriad contexts, and I don’t know why that standard ought to be different for politicians.

More importantly, I think these are all manifestations of an increasingly untrustworthy and untruthful climate. Coca-Cola should not be using the most careful reading of the law to label its apple and grape juice with other fruits — that shouldn’t even be a question. Nor should politicians feel like they should be able to spread outright lies in their promotional materials. This sounds incredibly naïve, I realize, but the current level of cynicism is not supportive of a functional democracy. We should not have such low expectations.

I remain perplexed, dismayed, and frustrated that “fine print” is something that exists at all, and that there is an expectation that public officials will knowingly lie to voters.