Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on national TV Tuesday night to assure Washington, Wall Street, and America that you can still trust Facebook.
He spoke on CNN’s AC360 with Laurie Segall, who queried the CEO on various revelations from the recent New York Times bombshell–which detailed his company’s transparency problems in the wake of the infestation on the social network by Russian trolls. Zuckerberg also addressed calls for his own resignation as Facebook’s chairman of the board.
Overall, Zuckerberg repeated many of the points he made on a call with journalists last Friday, so the interview didn’t break any big news. But it did provide more color to the overall story.
Catering to conservatives?
Zuckerberg contradicted one of the main points in the Times‘s story. Facebook was conflicted on whether or not to take down a statement posted on Facebook by then-candidate Donald Trump in December 2015 calling for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States. The Times said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg “delegated” the task of deciding to three underlings, including a Republican attorney named Joel Kaplan whom Sandberg had hired.
Kaplan reportedly argued that the post should stay up because Trump is an important public figure, and that taking it down might violate his free speech. He said taking it down might also “stoke a conservative backlash.” (Kaplan, in a surprising lapse in PR judgment, was the guy sitting directly behind his friend Brett Kavanaugh during the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the judge’s confirmation hearings.) Kaplan’s argument apparently won the day–but not the part about conservatives, according to Zuck Tuesday night.
Zuckerberg, the Times reported, did not participate in the debate. On CNN tonight Zuckerberg said something different.
Segall: I know Facebook is under a lot of pressure from the Democrats and Republicans, the government in general. Are [Facebook] leaders making content decisions based on appeasing political leaders? . . . did they in that situation?
Zuckerberg: No. They didn’t. And I was involved in those conversations, and I think it’s very important that people have the opportunity to hear from what political leaders are saying. So, you know, in those cases, I don’t think that a lot of the content violated our policies.
Segall: So, it wasn’t accurate, though, that part of the reason they didn’t take down the post was because there was concern over a conservative backlash?
Zuckerberg: No, that was certainly not any part of the conversation that I had.
Definers, and the truth
In October 2017, Facebook asked a GOP opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs to help deflect criticism away from Facebook. One way Definers reportedly did this was to plant negative news stories about anti-Facebook groups (like Freedom from Facebook), and about tech rivals like Google and Apple, on a conservative news site called NTK Network that was one of its affiliates. In the interview with CNN, Zuckerberg defended Definers’ work.
Zuckerberg: Yes. Look, from the review that I’ve done so far, it doesn’t appear that anything that the group said was untrue as far as we can tell.
The Buck Stops With Zuck
In the conference call last week Zuckerberg said he knew nothing about Definers until he read about the firm in the Times story. He said the firm was hired by his communications team and that he had no knowledge of it. Since then Zuck has apparently understood that throwing your company’s comms team under the bus isn’t the best look.
Zuckerberg: Well, I–like I said on the call, you know–I learned about this when I read the report as well. But I’m not so sure that that’s the most important point. I think your question is right that this is–I do run the company. I am responsible for everything that happens here.
Sandberg said in a Facebook post last Thursday that she also didn’t know about Definers. “I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have,” she wrote.
Lots of speculation has swirled around Sheryl Sandberg’s possible firing as a consequence of the Times story. Zuckerberg said some of the same things to Segall that he said to reporters on the Friday conference call. From the conference call last week: “Overall, Sheryl is doing great work, and she will continue to be my partner in the work,” Zuckerberg said. “We have made great progress, and she’s a big reason for that.”
The message sounded a little different on CNN. To my ear, Zuckerberg didn’t exactly rule out the possibility of Sandberg’s departure. It all depends on your interpretation of the meaning of the first word of his answer. Was he saying “yeah” to acknowledge Segall’s question? Or “yeah” Sandberg won’t be fired? Check out the video clip and decide for yourself.
Segall: There are a lot of questions about Sheryl Sandberg’s role in the latest controversy. Can you definitely say Sheryl will stay in her same role?
Zuckerberg: Yeah . . . look, Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts to address a lot of the biggest efforts that–the biggest issues that we have. And she’s been an important partner for me for 10 years. And, you know, I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done together. And I hope that we work together for decades more to come.
(Source: CNN Business)
Sandberg’s firing would be a surprise indeed, but it could happen. (Why Joel Kaplan still has a job is a mystery to me.)
Stepping down is “not the plan”
Some Facebook shareholders, and some in the media, have called for Zuckerberg to give up his current role as chairman of the board. Zuckerberg has almost total control over the company because he owns 60% of its voting shares. A new chairman might install a much-needed check on Zuckerberg’s power, the thinking goes.
The answer is still no, however:
Segall: You are CEO and chairman of Facebook. That’s an extraordinary amount of power given that you rule a kingdom of 2 billion people digitally, essentially . . . So, you’re not stepping down as chairman?
Zuckerberg: That’s not the plan.
Segall: Would anything change that?
Zuckerberg: I mean, in fact, eventually, over time. I mean, I’m not going to–I’m not going to be doing this forever, but I certainly–I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense.