Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said his platform is ready to combat misinformation during the oncoming US presidential election, as it fights an “arms race” battle against electoral meddling by foreign states.
In his first broadcast interview in five years, Mr Zuckerberg told the BBC that he and his company “have learnt a lot about how politics works online” since 2016, and that Facebook has been working with governments around the world to get ready for the upcoming onslaught of meddling between now and November.
“One big area that we were behind on in 2016 but I think now are quite advanced at is identifying and fighting these co-ordinated information campaigns that come from different state actors around the world.”
Saying the company has worked with governments around the world to get better at identifying these threats, Mr Zuckerberg stated that “countries are going to continue to try and interfere, and we are going to see issues like that.
“And I feel pretty confident that we are going to be able to protect the integrity of the upcoming election.”
Facebook is under heavy pressure from US authorities to take more responsibility for the political content it hosts. According to a Princeton University study, no other internet platform facilitated the spread misinformation as quickly and in such volume.
Nonetheless, it has resisted calls for sweeping changes, and in for criticism at the start of this year when it announced it would not make changes to its advertising policies, including the micro-targeting that allows political actors to send crafted messages to extremely specific groups.
Mr Zuckerberg, who exerts total individual control at the company, was also asked about the spread of misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic, including unfounded claims that 5G infrastructure is playing a part in the virus’s spread.
“If some crazy person decided to start telling people to drink or inject bleach” – alluding Donald Trump effectively did recently – “what is the Facebook algorithm’s response to that?”
Mr Zuckerberg replied that when it comes to “harmful misinformation that puts people at imminent risk of physical harm”, Facebook will take it down – but that even where someone isn’t at immediate risk of physical harm, “we don’t want misinformation to be the content that is broadly going viral across the network”.
That, apparently, applies to all users and public speakers, no matter how powerful. “There was a case where the Brazilian president said that it was proven by all scientists that there’s a drug that was proven to cure coronavirus. That’s obviously not true … so we had to enforce that.”
Still, the Facebook CEO said that there are two tiers of misinformation. “If you’re saying something that’s going to put people at imminent risk of harm, we take it down. If you’re saying something that is just wrong, we don’t take that down, but we stop it from spreading, generally. That’s a much more sensitive topic, because there are a lot of things in society that someone thinks is bad, but other people on the other side of that issue think it’s good.
“I think unless something is very clear that it’s going to cause real damage to someone in the near-term, I think you generally want to allow as wide an aperture of expression as possible.”