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Carolyn Wysinger is a teacher and activist who says Facebook censors her from discussing racism online, sometimes locking her out of her account.
USA TODAY

Hours ahead of the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social networking giant can’t stop potential election interference from Russia and other countries on its own and pushed for help from the federal government.

After years of increasing public scrutiny over data breaches and manipulation, Zuckerberg on Wednesday called for federal government regulations on social media sites but insisted that a breakup of Facebook would only complicate issues of misinformation and privacy.

Zuckerberg discussed social issues facing the internet at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual event in Colorado that includes conversations on topics such as technology and the environment. 

Delving into the lines between free speech and decency, Zuckerberg explained Facebook’s policies but said lawmakers are better positioned to create uniform rules. 

“As a society, if we were rewriting the rules of the internet from scratch today, it is not at all clear to me that what we would want to do is have private companies make so many of these decisions by themselves,” Zuckerberg said.

Misinformation and deepfakes

Facebook is “thinking through” its policies on deepfakes, Zuckerberg said, adding he believes it is sensible to treat them differently from other false information. 

Deepfakes are manipulated videos, such as the altered video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that spread online last month. Zuckerberg on Wednesday said the company made a mistake while handling the Pelosi video, as it was distributed more widely than Facebook’s policies should have allowed. 

But he said private companies shouldn’t act hastily in cracking down on false information, including satire.   

Wait, is that video real?: The race against deepfakes and dangers of manipulated recordings

“I just think you want to be very careful about what you’re defining as misinformation, because this is a topic that can be very easily politicized,” Zuckerberg said. “People who don’t like the way something was cut often will kind of argue it did not reflect the true intent or was misinformation, but we exist in a society where people value and cherish free expression.”

Currently, he said Facebook works with fact checkers who mark posts as false and prevent posts from getting widely shared. Related content also pops up showing more accurate videos. In Zuckerberg’s view, preventing people from saying incorrect things to friends is overreach. 

“If it’s misinformation, we say, ‘OK, we don’t think it should be against the rules to say something that happens to be false to your friends,’” Zuckerberg said. “But we don’t want it to spread and go viral, right? People get things wrong.” 

Election interference 

When it comes to protecting election integrity, Zuckerberg said Facebook can only do so much. He detailed the 30,000 employees who work on content safety review and technical artificial intelligence systems that can detect improper activity. 

The networking site also has strategies to remove bad actors from systems before they can spread misinformation, Zuckerberg said, as well as a requirement for political advertisers to validate their identity with a government-issued ID. Political ads also go into an archive that will be viewable for about seven years to support transparency, he said.

Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

But, as Facebook has seen increased activity from countries such as Iran, Zuckerberg said the federal government needs to step in to prevent future interference. 

“As a private company, we don’t have the tools to make the Russian government stop,” Zuckerberg said. “We can defend as best as we can, but our government is the one that has the tools to apply pressure to Russia, not us.” 

While he described election integrity one of Facebook’s highest priorities, he said there is a need for an international Honest Ads Act, which was introduced to Congress last month. 

Privacy versus data portability 

Giving people choices about how their information is handled, Zuckerberg said, is generally appropriate. Yet too many choices over what companies can use private data, he said, can make experiences less user-friendly.  

“The flip side of giving people control is that then people need to go understand every one of the hundred choices that they have the chance to make,” he said. “Which isn’t necessarily bad, but a lot of people show up to Facebook and Instagram their goal is to see what’s going on with their friends and share a moment from their day, not to go dig around in settings.” 

2016 elections: We read the released Russian Facebook ads. You can, too

Plus, he said the issue of data portability comes into play when companies don’t share people’s information with other services. 

To simplify the push and pull between the issues, Zuckerberg said he is in favor of government regulation to make policies consistent across platforms. 

Breaking up Facebook

Zuckerberg didn’t pull any punches when asked for his thoughts on some politicians’ calls for the break up of Facebook. 

He said Facebook’s size and budget makes it better able to respond to issues of misinformation, election interference and privacy.

“It’s not the case that if you broke up Facebook into a bunch of pieces you suddenly wouldn’t have those issues,” he said. “You would have those issues, you would just be much less equipped to deal with them.” 

Twitter and Reddit also face similar issues despite being smaller companies, he argued. 

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