5 Key Parts of Mark Zuckerberg’s Talk on Free Speech at Georgetown University

Facebook’s CEO doesn’t believe private companies should be making decisions about whether content is truthful

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking at Georgetown University Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about his views on free speech and expression at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

Zuckerberg focused on giving everybody a voice and cautioned against laws that undermine free expression and human rights.

The video of the full speech is available here, and following are five key areas he addressed during his talk.

Facebook’s responsibilities

Zuckerberg said, “I believe that we have two responsibilities: To remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible—and not allow the definition of what is considered dangerous to expand beyond what is absolutely necessary. That’s what I’m committed to. But beyond these new properties of the internet, there are also shifting cultural sensitivities and diverging views on what people consider dangerous content.”

Later in his speech, he added, “I’m committed to the values we’re discussing today, but we won’t always get it right. I understand people are concerned that we have so much control over how they communicate on our services. And I understand people are concerned about bias and making sure their ideas are treated fairly. Frankly, I don’t think we should be making so many important decisions about speech on our own either. We’d benefit from a more democratic process, clearer rules for the internet and new institutions.”


With campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election in full swing, this topic grabbed headlines last week when candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) created a political ad on the social network making the blatantly false statement—and immediately disclosing that it was a false statement—that Zuckerberg endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election.

Warren’s ad was a response to the Trump campaign’s ads on social platforms that contained false information, as well as Facebook’s declaration last month that third-party fact-checkers would not review posts from politicians.

Speaking about misinformation in general, Zuckerberg said, “Take misinformation. No one tells us they want to see misinformation. That’s why we work with independent fact-checkers to stop hoaxes that are going viral from spreading. But misinformation is a pretty broad category. A lot of people like satire, which isn’t necessarily true. A lot of people talk about their experiences through stories that may be exaggerated or have inaccuracies but speak to a deeper truth in their lived experience. We need to be careful about restricting that. Even when there is a common set of facts, different media outlets tell very different stories emphasizing different angles. There’s a lot of nuance here. And while I worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.”

He pointed to the transparency provided by Facebook regarding political advertising, including its Ad Library—which is available to everyone, whether they have a Facebook account or not—and he said of the decision not to fact-check content from politicians, “We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.”

Finally, he reiterated his belief that private companies should not be tasked with censoring content or deciding what is truthful, saying, “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads. As a principle, in a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies. Of course, there are exceptions, and even for politicians, we don’t allow content that incites violence or risks imminent harm—and of course we don’t allow voter suppression. Voting is voice. Fighting voter suppression may be as important for the civil rights movement as free expression has been. Just as we’re inspired by the First Amendment, we’re inspired by the 15th Amendment, too.”

Political ads

Zuckerberg repeated a statement he has made in the past: “Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether. From a business perspective, the controversy certainly isn’t worth the small part of our business they make up. But political ads are an important part of voice—especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

He also pointed to the complexities of enacting such a policy, asking where issue ads would fit in: “Would we ban all ads about healthcare or immigration or women’s empowerment? If we banned candidates’ ads but not these, would that really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except the candidates themselves? There are issues any way you cut this, and when it’s not absolutely clear what to do, I believe we should err on the side of greater expression.”

Focusing on the source rather than the content

Zuckerberg said that while most of the content posted by accounts created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election was “distasteful,” it would have been allowed to remain on the platform if it originated from actual Americans, and the fake accounts that were used were the issue.

He also reiterated the requirements Facebook put in place for political ads, with people having to provide government-issued identification and verify their location, and he touted advances by the social network’s artificial intelligence systems in detecting coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Local laws from across the globe

Zuckerberg picked up where Facebook vice president of global policy management Monika Bickert left off in a Newsroom post earlier this week addressing a ruling earlier this month by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which would enable any single EU nation to order the removal of content from the social network not just in that nation, but globally.

He said, “We’re increasingly seeing laws and regulations around the world that undermine free expression and people’s human rights. These local laws are each individually troubling, especially when they shut down speech in places where there isn’t democracy or freedom of the press. But it’s even worse when countries try to impose their speech restrictions on the rest of the world.”

Zuckerberg also turned his attention to China, saying, “This raises a larger question about the future of the global internet. China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and it is now exporting its vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside of China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee that these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese. We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese application growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S. Is that the internet we want?”

He continued, “It’s one of the reasons why we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram or our other services in China. I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world, and I thought we might help create a more open society. I worked hard to make this happen. But we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in. And now we have more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.”

Zuckerberg concluded, “This question of which nation’s values will determine what speech is allowed for decades to come really puts into perspective our debates about the content issues of the day. While we may disagree on exactly where to draw the line on specific issues, we at least can disagree. That’s what free expression is. And the fact that we can even have this conversation means that we’re at least debating from some common values. If another nation’s platforms set the rules, our discourse will be defined by a completely different set of values.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.