Mark Zuckerberg continues digging in his heels on Facebook's controversial policy around allowing all political ads — no matter how baldly false their message — and never fact-checking them. But he invited civil rights leaders and other staunch critics of the policy for an intimate dinner at his Palo Alto home Monday evening, because he wants to look like he cares.
As CNN reports, Zuck was "flanked" by COO Sheryl Sandberg and former UK politico turned global comms chief Nick Clegg in what sounds like a grand piece of public relations theater, including the likes of the Reverend Al Sharpton; Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates; and Rashad Robinson, president of the advocacy group Color of Change. It was an off-the-record discussion, but a few of these figures were made available for quotes afterwards. Because what good would such an event be unless someone reported on it?
The event appears to be like a flip-side, liberal version of the off-the-record events Zuckerberg reportedly hosted over the summer with conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson and outright rightwing loons — and those were meant to placate criticisms that he was biased toward liberals, and against conservative speech.
Sharpton remained firm in his opposition to the ad policy after enjoying his steak and scallops. In a statement released afterward he said, per KPIX, "The exemption for politicians on Facebook could be used to suppress voting, give wrong messaging, and even scare people from filling out the census. We intend to seek meetings with the head of Google, Twitter and others as follow up."
The party line, after the dinner, via a Facebook PR person, was, "We're grateful that these prominent leaders of the civil rights community took the time to attend a private dinner hosted by Mark and Sheryl. They discussed a range of important issues and we look forward to continuing these conversations."
Vanita Gupta, the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement saying, "The focus of a lot of the issues around 2016 was around Russian interference, but historically, voter suppression has been perpetrated by politicians themselves."
The bright side of all this, as Facebook and Zuckerberg himself have faced intense pushback from politicians and the media about the ad policy — despite it's not being dissimilar from one used by broadcast media — is that he's softening on one key issue. As Dylan Byers reports Tuesday, Zuckerberg is reportedly considering removing the ability of political campaigns to micro-target ads on Facebook. He's responding in part to an op-ed last week from Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, who suggested that political ads shouldn't be banned or fact-checked, but they also shouldn't be micro-targeted. Facebook should "allow political ads while deterring disinformation campaigns, restoring transparency and protecting the robust marketplace of ideas," Weintraub writes. She points to micro-targeting as the biggest issue because it allows campaigns to aim false messages at specific, small groups of people "with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad."
A source familiar with Zuck's thinking says he is considering changing the micro-targeting policy in response to this argument, and in response to Twitter's decision last week to ban political ads altogether.
Photo: Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons