Today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University where he positioned himself and his company as champions of free speech, despite the company censoring high profile political commentators, gun range photos, and even positive or neutral mentions of people’s names this year. Now Senator Josh Hawley has weighed in on Facebook’s new-found pro-free speech stance by suggesting that it’s disingenuous and revealing that Zuckerberg had told him the company was ready to censor speech in China.
During the speech, Zuckerberg said he believes “giving more people a voice, gives power to the powerless.” He went on to discuss the benefits of free speech on society, democracy, business, and local communities. Zuckerberg even said that he thinks sacrificing free speech for political outcomes is “dangerous.”
In addition to espousing the benefits of free speech, Zuckerberg criticized Chinese state censorship by highlighting that six of the top 10 internet platforms are now Chinese-owned and that China is now exporting its “vision of the internet” to other countries.
“On TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these same [Hong Kong] protests are censored, even here in the US. Is that the internet we want?” Zuckerberg said. “So this is one of the reasons we don’t operate Facebook, Instagram, or our other services in China.”
After the speech, Hawley took to Twitter to share his thoughts. “Interesting. Now that Facebook is shut out of China, Zuck champions free speech,” Hawley said. “But he told me in our meeting when I asked about Chinese censorship that Facebook “always complies with local laws,” and offered this as explanation for why FB was ready to censor in Chinese mkt.”
Hawley also claimed that Zuckerberg had compared China’s censorship rules to Germany’s rules against holocaust denial and described it as an “interesting way to advocate free speech.”
Hawley’s statements and Facebook’s actions this year aren’t the only reasons to doubt the sincerity of Zuckerberg’s supposed new-found support of free speech. Even during his speech, Zuckerberg said that his version of free speech has limits: “I believe that we must continue to stand for free expression. Now, at the same time, I know that free expression has never been absolute.”
When explaining what those limits should be, Zuckerberg conflated bullying with terrorist propaganda:
“But even American tradition recognizes that some speech infringes on other people’s rights. Yet still, a strict First Amendment standard might require us to allow things like terrorist propaganda or bullying people that almost everyone agrees that we should stop.”
And despite “hate speech” not being recognized by US law, Zuckerberg said it’s prohibited under his version of free speech because “some speech can have the effect of restricting others’ right to speak.”
Zuckerberg’s restricted version of free speech echoes the way the company has selectively interpreted the First Amendment this year to suit its needs. In an attempt to get a defamation lawsuit brought by US congressional candidate Laura Loomer dismissed, Facebook said its decision to label Loomer “dangerous” should be protected under the First Amendment. Ironically, Facebook has used this “dangerous” label as the justification for banning Loomer and others from its platform and preventing them from speaking freely.