Representatives repeatedly returned to the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol in their questioning, pressing Zuckerberg — along with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — on their responsibility for the violence.
Time and again, Zuckerberg exaggerated his company’s efforts to control the spread of increasingly violent, far-right misinformation on Facebook in the run up to the riot, while avoiding taking any responsibility for Facebook’s role in facilitating the planning.
Asked by Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) if their platforms bear some responsibility for disseminating disinformation related to the election and the “Stop the Steal” movement that culminated in the attack on the Capitol, only Dorsey offered a qualified yes.
“You can take down this content, you can reduce division, you can fix this ― but you choose not to,” Doyle said in his opening statement. “You have the means, but time after time, you are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of your users, our nation and our democracy.”
In a follow-up, Doyle pressed Zuckerberg slightly, asking how it’s “possible for you not to at least admit that Facebook played a leading role in the recruitment, planning and execution of the attack on the Capitol.”
Zuckerberg responded by blaming former President Donald Trump, who for years used social media to spread lies and call for violence while Facebook largely looked the other way.
“I think the responsibility lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” Zuckerberg said. “Secondarily, also with the people who spread that content, including the president but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organize, I think that those people bear the primary responsibility as well.”
Zuckerberg evaded giving a straight answer in subsequent questioning, telling Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that, while the company has “further work” to do on moderation, his position on Facebook’s role in fomenting insurrection remained unchanged.
Zuckerberg also defended Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for claiming, less than a week after the violent siege, that the riot was not “largely organized” on Facebook, but on other platforms “that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”
A week after Sandberg’s comments, a report by Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group that oversees the Tech Transparency Project, concluded the opposite was true.
“Not only is [Sandberg’s] assertion false,” the report said, “but it ignores the fact that Facebook spent the past year allowing election conspiracies and far-right militia activity to proliferate on its platform, laying the groundwork for the broader radicalization that fueled the Capitol insurrection in the first place.”
Thursday’s testimony comes on the heels of a followup report by TTP which found that, despite Zuckerberg’s claims, Facebook still has yet to close “gaping holes” that allow militia groups to proliferate on the platform. Despite platform executives’ promise to limit far-right militias, TTP found that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is likely making it worse.
The report identified 201 militia pages and 13 militia groups on Facebook as of March 18. Of the 201 pages, 70% had the word “militia” in their title, suggesting the company’s automatic detection systems either aren’t all that great, or the company isn’t serious about enforcing them.
TTP also found that 17% of the militia pages were auto-generated by Facebook itself in a bid to drive more likes and engagement on the site. That tactic echoes criticism from May 2020, when a separate TTP report found Facebook was auto-generating pages for white supremacist groups.
“The dirty truth is that they are relying on algorithms to purposefully promote conspiratorial, divisive, or extremist content so they can rake in the ad dollars,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said Thursday.
“This is because the more outrageous and extremist the content, the more engagement and views these companies get from their users. More views equal more money.”