Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hosting informal talks and small, off-the-record dinners with conservative journalists, commentators and at least one Republican lawmaker in recent months to discuss issues like free speech and discuss partnerships.
The dinners, which began in July, are part of Zuckerberg’s broader effort to cultivate friends on the right amid outrage by President Donald Trump and his allies over alleged “bias” against conservatives at Facebook and other major social media companies. “I’m under no illusions that he’s a conservative but I think he does care about some of our concerns,” said one person familiar with the gatherings, which multiple sources have confirmed.
News of the outreach is likely to further fuel suspicions on the left that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the White House and stay out of Trump’s crosshairs. The president threatened to sue Facebook and Google in June and has in the past pressured the Justice Department to take action against his perceived foes.
“The discussion in Silicon Valley is that Zuckerberg is very concerned about the Justice Department, under Bill Barr, bringing an enforcement action to break up the company,” said one cybersecurity researcher and former government official based in Silicon Valley. “So the fear is that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the Trump administration by not cracking down on right-wing propaganda.”
Facebook has been criticized in recent days, including by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, for its ad policy, which exempts politicians from third-party fact-checking and arguably facilitates the spread of disinformation.
Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies—explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine. This week, we decided to see just how far it goes.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 12, 2019
When asked about the gatherings, a senior Trump administration official said “the White House is looking for meaningful steps from Facebook on a number of fronts,” including “competition, free speech for everybody including conservatives, and privacy.”
“Nominal outreach won’t cut it,” the official added.
As part of the series, Zuckerberg met earlier this year with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who insinuated that Facebook had become a monopoly during a congressional hearing last year; Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has fingered Zuckerberg as contributing to “the death of free speech in America”; and conservative radio talk host Hugh Hewitt, who has cautioned against a DOJ enforcement action but has called for a “new regulatory regime” to minimize “big tech bias” against conservatives.
CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, AEI fellow and former Washington Free Beacon editor Matt Continetti, Town Hall editor and Fox News contributor Guy Benson, and Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell have also attended the dinners, according to the person familiar with the gatherings. Washington Examiner chief political correspondent and Fox News contributor Byron York also confirmed his attendance but declined to disclose the contents of the dinner because there was a prior agreement that it was off-the-record.
A spokesman for Graham confirmed that the South Carolina senator has spoken with Zuckerberg. Carlson, Continetti, Benson, Bozell and Hewitt declined to comment. Ham and Shapiro did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Facebook, noting Zuckerberg’s recent meetings in Washington with Democrats, said in a statement, “For years, Mark Zuckerberg has met with elected officials and thought leaders all across the political spectrum.”
Each dinner has been hosted at one of Zuckerberg’s homes in California, and at least one lasted around two-and-a-half to three hours. The conversations center around “free expression, unfair treatment of conservatives, the appeals process for real or perceived unfair treatment, fact checking, partnerships, and privacy,” the source familiar with the meetings said.
“My perception of him was more positive than I anticipated,” this person added, referring to Zuckerberg. “He was receptive and thoughtful.”
“I’ve always thought that he wanted to make things right by conservatives,” said another person familiar with the dinners. “I think he’s been genuine in hoping that might happen. Sometimes I think the headwinds are so strong in Palo Alto that I don’t think even he can succeed.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has engaged in similar outreach to conservatives in an attempt to gain their trust, and hosted a private dinner in Washington, D.C. with GOP political operatives and commentators in July 2018, according to the Washington Post.
Facebook changed its policies following Russia’s election interference in 2016 in an attempt to halt the spread of false news and foreign-bought ads. But the company has also been working to minimize and correct the appearance of bias in those policies ever since it was reported that the company’s employees may have suppressed stories from right-leaning publications and authors in its “Trending Topics” section.
As part of those efforts, the company launched a yearlong “conservative bias audit” in 2018, which was conducted by former Sen. Jon Kyl and a team from his law firm Covington and Burling.
Kyl interviewed 133 conservative lawmakers and groups for the audit, which ended in August and resulted in changes to its advertising policies. It’s unclear whether the Zuckerberg dinners are another facet of that project.
Allegations that Facebook censors conservatives, however, have gone largely unsubstantiated—conservative publications including Fox, Breitbart, and Shapiro’s Daily Wire were among the top publishers on Facebook as of this past May, according to data from the social media tracking firm Newswhip.
Trump’s 2016 campaign also took advantage of Facebook’s offer to embed employees, who acted as political operatives and provided critical support to the campaign’s social media operations, according to a study released in November 2017. (Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined a similar offer.)
Facebook’s critics on the left have argued that the company is overcorrecting and trying to curry favor with the Trump administration as it faces increasing scrutiny over its sloppy privacy practices and potential monopoly in social media. “Facebook made a grave mistake in allowing external political actors to direct an assessment of company policy and practices,” Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said after the “conservative bias” audit was completed in August.
The ongoing talks between Zuckerberg and prominent conservatives have attracted the attention of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which conducts oversight on issues related to telecommunications and consumer protection and is “aware” of allegations that conservatives “are trying to work the refs” ahead of 2020, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
The committee’s Democrats sent a previously unreported letter to Facebook in June, after a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral on the platform, asking what the company was doing to address “the spreading of political disinformation by real accounts.”
“We are concerned that you and your company are not taking these occurrences seriously and are grossly unprepared for the 2020 election,” they wrote. “Specifically, we are concerned that there may be a potential conflict of interest between Facebook’s bottom line and immediately addressing political disinformation on your platform.”
Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, Kevin Martin, responded three weeks later in a letter, also obtained by POLITICO. In it, he said the company has been working with third-party fact checkers to “remove fake accounts, disrupt the financial incentives behind propagating false and misleading information,” and letting users know “when they are reading or sharing information (excluding satire and opinion) that has been disputed or debunked.”
“Leading up to 2020 we know that combating misinformation is one of the most important things we can do,” Martin wrote.
But the social media giant has come under fire recently for its ad policy, which considers politicians’ claims—if made directly on their Facebook page, in an ad or on their website—to be “direct speech and ineligible for our third-party fact checking program.” In keeping with that policy, Facebook has allowed a Trump campaign ad making false claims about Joe Biden’s ties to Ukraine to remain on the platform
Warren, who has proposed breaking up Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants, tested the limits of that policy last week by releasing an ad making the deliberately false claim that Zukcerberg and Facebook had endorsed Trump’s re-election.
“If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it,” said the Warren ad. “But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks. Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. Now, they’re deliberately allowing a candidate to intentionally lie to the American people. It’s time to hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable — add your name if you agree.”
Facebook hit back on Saturday night, likening the company’s policies on candidate speech to that of the Federal Communications Commission.
“The FCC doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech,” the company tweeted. “We agree it’s better to let voters—not companies—decide.”
Zuckerberg held a closed-door meeting with half a dozen senators last month to discuss what Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) described at the time as an opportunity for lawmakers to air their concerns about Facebook’s role in American democracy directly with the company’s founder. On that same trip to Washington, Zuckerberg also met with Trump, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House social media director Dan Scavino.
He is due in Washington next week to testify before the House Financial Services Committee, where he’s expected to discuss Facebook’s controversial cryptocurrency plans.
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