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Facebook Stands for Free Expression

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/18/2019 Mark Zuckerberg
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Since starting Facebook in 2004, I’ve focused on building services that give people voice and bring them together. Throughout history, these objectives have gone hand in hand—even if it doesn’t feel that way today. Frederick Douglass once called free expression “the great moral renovator of society.” Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo depend on people openly sharing their experiences. And the ability to speak freely has been central in the global fight for democracy. Allowing greater numbers of people to share their perspectives is how society becomes more inclusive.

But increasingly, this idea is being challenged. Some believe that free expression is driving us apart rather than bringing us together. Others from across the political spectrum believe that achieving their preferred political outcome is more important than allowing every person to have a voice.

The power of individuals to express themselves has expanded rapidly in recent decades. But in times of social turmoil, there’s often an impulse to pull back on free expression. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” while locked up for protesting peacefully. When America was polarized about its role in World War I, the Supreme Court ruled that the prominent socialist Eugene V. Debs could be imprisoned for an antiwar speech.

Today, in another time of social tension, the impulse to restrict speech is back. We face a choice: We can stand for free expression, understanding its messiness but believing that the long journey toward progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is too great.

I believe we must stand for free expression. But three major threats stand in the way.

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First, laws around the world are undermining expression by restricting speech and imposing one country’s speech restrictions on others. Until recently, the internet was mostly defined by American platforms with strong free-expression values. But there’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese. While encrypted services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere, on TikTok—the Chinese app growing quickly around the world—mention of protests are censored, even in the U.S. As American policy makers define internet regulations to address public safety, they should help free expression triumph.

The second challenge to free expression is the internet platforms themselves—including Facebook. Facebook makes a lot of decisions that affect people’s ability to express themselves. Our values are inspired by the American tradition, but a strict First Amendment standard would mean allowing content like terrorist propaganda or bullying. Most Americans agree that people should be free to say things others don’t like, but no one should be able to put others in danger. So the question is where to draw the line.

a person wearing a costume © Barbara Kelley At Facebook, we’re focused on addressing viral misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm, like misleading health advice. We’ve built specific systems to remove threats such as child exploitation. In countries at risk of conflict, we take down content that could lead to imminent violence or genocide, and we’ve built systems that can detect risks of self-harm within minutes.

There are diverging views on what people consider dangerous. If someone shares a video of a racist attack, are they condemning it or glorifying it? Are they using normal slang, or using an innocent word in a new way to incite violence? Now multiply those challenges by 100 different languages.

Or take misinformation. No one tells us they want to see misinformation. But people enjoy satire, and they often tell stories that have inaccuracies but speak to a larger truth. Even with a common set of facts, media outlets emphasize different angles. I worry about an erosion of truth, but I don’t think most people want a world where you can share only things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.

I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. Like the other major internet platforms and most media, Facebook doesn’t fact-check political ads. And if content is newsworthy, we won’t take it down. There are exceptions—even for politicians we don’t allow content if there’s a risk of real-world harm, and we don’t allow voter suppression.

I’ve considered whether we should ban political ads altogether. They are a small part of Facebook’s business and the controversy they create isn’t worth it. But advertising is an important component of free expression. Banning political ads gives an unfair advantage to incumbents and media favorites. It’s also unclear where the line should be drawn. Many ads are about issues, not elections. Would we ban ads about immigration or women’s empowerment? If not, would it really make sense to give everyone but candidates a voice in political debates? There’s no simple answer, and I believe we should err on the side of allowing greater expression.

But I also believe Facebook shouldn’t be making so many important decisions about speech on its own. That’s why we’re establishing an independent Oversight Board that will make binding decisions on what content stays up and comes down. Neither my team nor I will be able to overturn these decisions. We’re going to appoint members to this board who have a diversity of views and backgrounds, but who each hold free expression as a paramount value.

The third challenge to expression comes from politics. Some say free speech is dangerous because it may lead to outcomes they find unacceptable. Others believe the stakes are so high that they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate or decide what to believe for themselves.

I believe these views are more dangerous for democracy than any speech could be. You can’t impose tolerance from the top down. It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a common understanding of the society in which they live.

So how do we turn the tide? Someone once told me the Founders thought free expression was like air—you don’t miss it until it’s gone. I’m more optimistic. I believe in giving people a voice because I believe in people. Progress isn’t linear. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back. But if we can’t agree to let each other talk about the issues, we’ll never even take that first step.

Mr. Zuckerberg is founder and CEO of Facebook. This is adapted from a speech he delivered Thursday as part of Georgetown University’s Democracy in the Digital Age series.

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