Lawmakers to grill Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s plans to combat election interference

Democratic Chairwoman Maxine Waters lit into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, slamming him for his company’s practices. 

Zuckerberg arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to be the sole witness before the House Financial Services Committee hearing on his company’s proposed digital currency and its plans to combat election interference in the 2020 contest. 

Waters kicked off the hearing by lecturing the billionaire CEO on his company’s lack of diversity, its digital currency Libra, the anti-trust investigations into Facebook, and its role in the public zeitgeist.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was the solo witness in a congressional hearing on his company

Zuckerberg's reaction to Waters' opening statement critical of him and his company

Zuckerberg’s reaction to Waters’ opening statement critical of him and his company

She pointed to a ‘counterfeit’ Black Lives Matter web page that operated on Facebook’s platform and asked about last week’s announcement the company would not fact-check political ads.

She accused him of doing so to make more money off political ads for his company, which will result in ‘massive voter suppression.’

Waters slammed Zuckerberg for giving ‘a platform to lie and mislead’ the American people in order to ‘allow Facebook to sell more ads – the impact of this will be a massive voter suppression effort.’ 

‘You announced a new ad policy that gives politicians a license to lie so you can earn more money off this division, I suppose,’ she said. 

‘Your claim to promote freedom of speech does not ring true Mr. Zuckerberg,’ Waters told him. 

‘Perhaps you believe that you are above the law,’ she said. ‘And it appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and a willing to step on over anyone, including your competitors women, people of color, your own users, and even our democracy to get what you want. All of these problems as an outline and – given the company’s size and reach – it should be clear, while we have serious concerns about your plans to establish a global digital currency that will challenge the U.S. dollar.’

And she concluded with a threat: ‘You have opened up a serious discussion on whether or not Facebook should be broken up.’

Zuckerberg smirked and whispered to his staff as Waters turned the microphone over to the Republican minority member.

‘You are here today to answer for the digital age,’ GOP Congressman Patrick McHenry told Zuckerberg.

Mark Zuckerberg is defending his company before House lawmakers on Wednesday

Mark Zuckerberg is defending his company before House lawmakers on Wednesday

Democratic Chairwoman Maxine Waters light into Zuckerberg

Democratic Chairwoman Maxine Waters light into Zuckerberg

Under questioning from lawmakers, Zuckerberg’s was pressed about his company’s plans to combat election interference, fight online sex traffickers, anti-discrimination practices, and his proposed digital currency.

And the surprising topic of anti-vaccine came up, mentioned by Republican Congressman Bill Posey of Florida in his five minutes of questioning.

Posey has been a central figure in the movement linking vaccines to autism – which has not been scientifically proven. Posey also says he supports vaccines.

He asked Zuckerberg why Facebook cracks down on anti-vaxx content. ‘You believe in giving people a voice,’ he said and went on to ask why the anti-vaxx content was targeted.

‘We do care deeply about giving people a voice and freedom of expression,’ Zuckerberg said but went on to add: ‘We also hear consistently from our community that people want to stop the spread of misinformation.’

Waters asked Zuckerberg if Facebook would fact-check ads paid to be placed on its platform.

‘Our policy is that we do not fact check politician’s speech,’ he told her. ‘We believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.’

And Congressman William Lacey Clay, an African American Democrat from Missouri, asked Zuckerberg how Facebook combats discrimination online.

‘It has always been against our policies for people to use any of our products and especially our ad products to discriminate,’ Zuckerberg told him.

Republican Congressman Bill Posey why Facebook cracks down on anti-vaxx content

Republican Congressman Bill Posey why Facebook cracks down on anti-vaxx content

Zuckerberg’s main purpose at Wednesday’s hearing is to defend his company’s new cyrptocurrency, Libra, which needs federal approval.

Waters called for a moratorium on Facebook’s development of Libra.

‘It would be beneficial if Facebook concentrates on addressing these many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project,’ she said.

Zuckerberg was asked his vision for Libera.  

‘The vision is here is to make it so people can send money to each other as easily and securely and cheaply as it is to send a text message,’ he said. 

Libra has faltered as of late amid criticism from lawmakers and regulators over fears it may aid money laundering and upend the global financial system.

Zuckerberg was quizzed by Democratic lawmaker Carolyn Maloney as to whether he would pledge no anonymous wallets on Facebook so there is no hidden illegal activity.  

‘This is a huge problem in safety for Americans and a huge concern for law enforcement,’ Maloney said. 

Zuckerberg pledged his cooperation.

‘Our wallet is going to have strong identity we are going to work with regulators,’ he told her. ‘You have my commitment from Facebook.’

Zuckerberg's wife Priscilla Chan, right, sits in the audience as he testifies

Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan, right, sits in the audience as he testifies

Mark Zuckerberg faced questions about his company's plans to combat election interference and child sex traffickers

Mark Zuckerberg faced questions about his company’s plans to combat election interference and child sex traffickers 

That political heat Facebook has faced on Liberal has resulted in several of its key financial partners – including Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and eBay – to abandon the project.

‘Facebook will not be a part of launching the Libra payments system anywhere in the world unless all US regulators approve it. And we support Libra delaying its launch until it has fully addressed US regulatory concerns,’ Zuckerberg said in his prepared testimony. 

In his seven-page opening statement, Zuckerberg acknowledges the criticism his company has come under.

‘This has been a challenging few years for Facebook. We understand we have a lot to do to live up to people’s expectations on issues like privacy and security. We know that companies like Facebook have become a part of people’s everyday lives, and that comes with immense responsibilities and a lot of very difficult judgments. We don’t think we should be tackling these issues alone, which is why I’ve called for a more active role for governments and regulators on harmful content, protecting elections, privacy, and data portability,’ he will say.

Zuckerberg has stepped up his outreach in the nation’s capitol, recently visiting lawmakers and the White House. He’s also been on a media blitz as he tries to win over lawmakers skeptical of his company’s digital currency plans and ability to counter social media menaces in the upcoming election.

Additionally, the company is being investigated by state attorneys general and Attorney General William Barr for anti-trust practices.  

Facebook’s role in the 2020 election has already come under fire after the social media platform refused to take down a campaign ad from Donald Trump on Joe Biden that the former vice president’s campaign said was false. 

Additionally, the company disclosed on Monday it had removed a network of Russian accounts targeting U.S. voters on Instagram, which Facebook owns.

Zuckerberg last appeared before Congress in April 2018 when he fielded 10 hours of questions over two days from House and Senate panels on political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook customer data to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. 

That scandal badly damaged Facebook’s image in Washington and has compounded worries among lawmakers that the social media giant cannot be trusted to launch a global digital currency to its 2.4 billion users.

While acknowledging the company’s mistakes, Zuckerberg argued Facebook can still be a force for good and that Libra, whose operations will be based in Switzerland, will help address global financial inclusion problems.

‘I understand we’re not the ideal messenger right now. I’m sure people wish it was anyone but Facebook putting this idea forward,’ he said in his opening statement. ‘But I think it would be bad for our country and the world if companies were discouraged from taking on challenges like these.’

Mark Zuckerberg arrives on Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify

Mark Zuckerberg arrives on Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify

Zuckerberg will testify about Facebook's plans to launch its cyber currency Libra

Zuckerberg will testify about Facebook’s plans to launch its cyber currency Libra

Waters previously called on Facebook to stop has its planned 2020 launch for Libra and has drafted legislation that would bar tech companies from entering financial services.

She previously called David Marcus, the Facebook executive who is now leading the Libra project, to testify before the committee in July.

On Oct. 14, the Libra Association comprising 21 members agreed articles of association laying out how the organization will be governed, as required by Swiss law. Most decisions will require a majority vote of the group’s governing council, meaning Facebook will not be able to call the shots.

Zuckerberg reminded lawmakers Wednesday he cannot speak for Libra as a whole but can make commitments on behalf of Facebook.