Even a 1960s radical acknowledged that Facebook is “one of the great American success stories.”
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. – a co-founder of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party and an admirer of Fidel Castro – made the reference when he was questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Wednesday morning in a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But on Tuesday, when Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, asked the 33-year-old entrepreneur in a Senate hearing to affirm that Facebook is an “only in America story,” the CEO looked puzzled.
The senator, who had recounted Zuckerberg’s story of launching a company in his college dorm room that now has a market cap of more than $450 billion, tried to help.
“You couldn’t do this in China, right? What you did in 10 years.”
Zuckerberg, whose personal net worth is estimated at $64 billion, paused.
“Well, senator, there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.”
“You’re supposed to answer yes to this question,” the senator said to laughter in the hearing room.
“Come on, I’m trying to help you,” Sullivan said. “Gimme a break, you’re in front of a bunch of senators. The answer is yes. OK? So, thank you.”
Zuckerberg grinned as the laughter continued.
But his response to a concept that both Democrats and Republicans regularly acknowledge – America’s exceptional place in world history in offering opportunity for success, “from rags to riches” – was revealing, writes columnist Mark Steyn.
“He didn’t even know enough to know that, even if you don’t really believe it, you’re supposed to pretend to, and move on: The phrase was as utterly alien to him as if he’d just landed from Planet Zongo. It had no purchase on him – as perhaps it doesn’t to the majority of Americans of his generation and background.”
Steyn comments that Zuckerberg probably doesn’t think of himself as a “rags-to-riches story.”
“If you’re inventing Facebook in a dorm room, it helps if the dorm room is at Harvard, which most Americans will never get anywhere near.”
See Sen. Dan Sullivan’s opening interchange with Mark Zuckerberg:
Steyn says Zuckerberg might be “more emblematic of a calcifying class system and diminishing social mobility.”
“As the middle class shrinks, we’re moving toward a Latin-American social structure, with a rich, corrupt, self-reinforcing elite, and a great dysfunctional mass underneath, and ever less in the middle, and not much by way of a viable path for anyone at the bottom to advance toward the top.”
Steyn notes that Zuckerberg’s company is bigger than most countries, and he’s a bigger global player than most presidents or prime ministers.
“‘Only in America’? Zuckerberg’s way beyond that. This is the Latin-American class system applied worldwide: an elite beyond borders, and the masses under 24-hour surveillance by the NSAe, or Facebook, or a malign alliance of both,” he writes.
“Mark Zuckerberg’s territory is the planet; for most law-abiding persons of western nations, the horizons will be ever more circumscribed.”
Zuckerberg’s worldview – he acknowledged Tuesday that Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place” – and its influence on what he purports to be a neutral platform for ideas has been confronted by a number of Republican lawmakers in the past two days.
Among the fixes for eliminating “fake news” and foreign interference in elections, Zuckerberg told members of Congress, is to build more advanced artificial intelligence tools and hire more staff to “police” content.
But that solution also has become a problem, because what Facebook defines as “fake news” or “harmful” messages may be what a conservative voice defines simply as uncomfortable truths.
In December 2016, Facebook began outsourcing judgment on “questionable” news items to fact-checking media outlets Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press. The outlets were given the authority to bury “disputed” content down users’ news feeds. Last summer, Zuckerberg announced a plan to hire 3,000 new employees over the next year to join a team of 4,500 fact-checkers to monitor content. In addition, a user-driven system allows for objectionable content to be flagged and removed.
At the joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Cruz, R-Texas, asked Zuckerberg about the concern of many Americans that Facebook is “engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told Zuckerberg he had deep reservations about the Facebook CEO’s intent to “police” speech, noting that opposition to abortion might be censored on the basis of hurting people’s feelings or making them feel “unsafe.”
On Wednesday, before the House panel, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., brought up Facebook’s use of an algorithm to eliminate undesirable content, demonstrating through several examples that it appears to be biased against conservatives.
“Are you aware of the bias?” Scalise asked.
“There is absolutely no direction in any of the changes we have made to have a bias in anything we do,” Zuckerberg insisted.
See video of Sen. Ted Cruz questioning Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s censorship of conservative voices:
Everyone allowed to speak?
On Tuesday, Cruz opened his five minutes of questioning by noting Facebook executives have given conflicting answers about whether the company is a “First Amendment speaker” expressing a particular viewpoint or a “neutral public forum allowing everyone to speak.”
Zuckerberg eventually identified Facebook as a neutral forum after explaining it doesn’t allow certain kinds of speech, such as “hate speech,” terrorist propaganda, nudity or “anything that makes people feel unsafe in the community.”
Cruz explained there are “a great number of Americans who are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
The senator noted that Gizmodo in May 2015 reported Facebook had routinely and purposefully suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mitt Romney and the Lois Lerner IRS scandal.
Cruz also pointed out that Facebook shut down a Chick-fil-A appreciation page, and blocked a post of a Fox News reporter and more than two dozen Catholic pages.
Most recently, he said, Facebook blocked the page of Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, who have 1.2 million followers, after determining their content and brand were “unsafe to the community.”
“To a great many Americans that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias,” Cruz said. “Do you agree with that assessment?
Zuckerberg replied he understands “where that concern is coming from, because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place.”
“This is actually a concern that I have that I try to root out in the company, is making sure that we don’t have any bias in the work that we do. And I think it is a fair concern that people would wonder about,” he said.
Cruz then asked Zuckerberg if he was aware of Facebook removing any ad or page from Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org or a Democratic candidate for office.
Zuckerberg said he was not “specifically aware.”
Cruz asked if he was aware of the political orientation of the 20,000 people assigned to review Facebook content.
“No, senator, we do not generally ask people about their political orientation when they are joining the company.”
See Sen. Ben Sasse question Mark Zuckerberg:
What is ‘hate speech’?
Sasse expressed concern about Zuckerberg’s intent to “police more speech,” based on the premise of “safety and protection.”
“I worry when you go from violent speech to hate speech in a hurry,” said Sasse.
The senator pointed out that pollsters found 40 percent of Americans under age 35 believe the First Amendment is dangerous because someone might use their freedom to hurt someone’s feelings.
Sasse noted there are many people who are passionately opposed to abortion.
“Can you imagine a world,” the senator asked, “where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your platform?”
Zuckerberg replied: “I certainly would not want that to be the case.”
Sasse added: “But it might really be unsettling to people who have had an abortion to have an open debate about that, wouldn’t it?”
“It might be, but I don’t think that would fit any of the definitions of what we have,” Zuckerberg said.
“But I do generally agree with the point that you’re making. As we’re able to technologically assist, especially toward having AI (artificial intelligence) proactively look at content, I think that’s going to create massive questions for society about what obligations we want to require companies to fulfill.”
Sasse said he wouldn’t want Zuckerberg “to leave here today and think that there’s sort of a unified view in Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more and more speech.”
“I think violence has no place on your platform. Sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform. But vigorous debates? Adults need to engage in vigorous debates.”