Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a defiant speech on Thursday in which he highlighted the importance of free speech in response to critics’ demands for heightened content auditing amid the 2020 presidential election cycle.
“I’ve focused on building services to do two things: give people voice and bring people together,” Zuckerberg said while addressing a crowd at Georgetown University. “These two simple ideas — voice and inclusion — go hand in hand.”
“We’ve seen this throughout history, even if it doesn’t feel that way today. More people being able to share their perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society,” he continued. “And our mutual commitment to each other — that we hold each others’ right to express our views and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want — is how we make progress together.”
Zuckerberg’s remarks come as the tech executive has been facing blowback for how it handles falsehoods published on the social network. Facebook announced in late-September that the site would refrain from fact-checking or moderating politicians’ speech.
Democrats have been especially vocal in their opposition to the approach; they have taken particular issue with Facebook’s decision not to censor an ad from President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign that accused former Vice President Joe Biden of using foreign aid as a bargaining chip to force the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating a company of which his son was a board member.
“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures in our society,” Zuckerberg said. “People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”
“I understand the concerns that people have about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands,” he continued. “It’s part of this amazing expansion of voice that we’ve experienced through law, culture and now technology as well.”
Zuckerberg noted that individuals are increasingly falling subject to the “dangerous” belief that accomplishing their own idealized political outcome is more important than allowing their fellow Americans to have their own voice.
Highlighting examples throughout history that illustrates both how the escalation in voices accelerates unification and the censorship of voices hinders progress, Zuckerberg invoked Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as events such as the American founding and Civil Rights movement, the worldwide spread of democracy, and the Vietnam War protests.
“So, giving people a voice and broader inclusion go hand in hand, and the trend has been towards greater voice over time,” the Facebook CEO said. “But there’s also a counter-trend, which is that in times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression because we want the progress that comes from free expression, but we don’t want the tension.”
Set off by recent events such as the 2008 financial crisis, the boost in globalization, and even worldwide migration, Zuckerberg argued that Americans are again facing a social tension heightening impulses to pull back on free expression.
“In the face of these tensions, once again a popular impulse is to pull back from free expression. We’re at another cross-roads,” he said. “We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”
He further expressed his pride in representing a company which values the American tradition of free expression, but noted that free speech is also not absolute, especially when that freedom infringes on another individual’s rights. He also examined some of the difficulties in determining what should constitute acceptable speech on the social media platform.
“The future depends on all of us. Whether you like Facebook or not, we need to recognize what is at stake and come together to stand for free expression at this critical moment,” Zuckerberg said. “I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people.”
“And as long as enough of us keep fighting for this, I believe that more people’s voices will eventually help us work through these issues together and write a new chapter in our history — where from all of our individual voices and perspectives, we can bring the world closer together,” he added.