Civil rights leaders criticize Zuckerberg's free speech address

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., said disinformation campaigns created an atmosphere that led to her father's assassination.
Image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes his keynote speech during Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in San Jose, California, in April.Stephen Lam / Reuters file

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By Janell Ross

Several of the nation’s leading civil rights activists and organizations criticized comments made by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who described efforts to reduce false information from the platform as a harmful form of censorship that could kill social movements.

During a speech Thursday at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg said he views the core work of Facebook as providing every person with a way to express his or her views. The absence of significant restraint on what’s said and done makes Facebook a space that helps to seed social change, he said.

Free and unbridled speech has always played a critical role in the work of outsiders who wanted a more inclusive society, Zuckerberg said in the live-streamed, 35-minute speech.

“We've seen this throughout history, even if it doesn't feel that way today," he said. "More people being able to share their perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society.”

That was true, Zuckerberg said, for Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and it was critical to the ability of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo to go viral.

Bernice King, King's lone surviving daughter, and Alicia Garza, who helped found Black Lives Matter, issued sharp rebukes in an online space where black voices have become increasingly influential: Twitter.

"I heard #MarkZuckerberg's ‘free expression’ speech, in which he referenced my father," Bernice King tweeted Thursday afternoon. "I'd like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians. These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination."

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Bernice King challenged the idea that a platform is not responsible for monitoring and removing false information. Her father, who was 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 on a Memphis hotel balcony, had been the subject of repeated threats, assassination attempts and false and distorted information disseminated by his political enemies and the FBI for more than a decade before his death.

This included false claims that King was a communist interested in government overthrow, violence and anarchy who cloaked himself in a veneer of Christianity and passive nonresistance.

King's assassin, who was white, said he killed the civil rights leader because King and his movement represented a threat to white Americans and the stability of the country.

“We respect and appreciate the comments made by some of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders," said Roberta Thomson, a Facebook spokeswoman said late Thursday in a statement. "Their perspectives are critically important and we are committed to continuing the ongoing dialogue. Our work is far from over.”

Garza described Zuckerburg’s comments as a misleading attempt to make a “mule” of the Black Lives Matter movement for his own corporate purposes.

Garza and others in the Black Lives Matter movement have been threatened, described repeatedly on social media platforms and conservative TV outlets as violent and subjected to what Garza has described as surprise FBI visits.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that described the speech as ignorant of history and a twisted attempt to evade responsibility for damage wrought in the 2016 election.

National security experts have described activity on Facebook and Twitter as critical to a coordinated Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Among the tactics used were ads and posts littered with inaccurate and incendiary text created by people using false identities.

Many made mention of Black Lives Matter and attempted to mimic and then twist concerns about police misconduct, racial inequality and immigration. Some of the material that appeared on Facebook was paid for in Russian rubles, according to documents made public by U.S. House and Senate committees.

This month, Facebook eliminated a rule that for years banned advertisements with “false or misleading content.” The decision may allow the company to collect a larger share of the billions in ad spending expected during the 2020 presidential election.

“The fact that Zuckerberg would even invoke civil rights icons in remarks that justify his decision to exempt politicians’ speech from Facebook’s Community Standards underscores his willful refusal to accept how voter suppression has played out, from Jim Crow to now," Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. "He is in denial and so is his company.”

Zuckerburg has recently spent time with conservatives, such as FOX News TV host Tucker Carlson and the writer Ben Shapiro, said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights organization that has engaged in discussions with Facebook executives about the company’s social responsibilities.

Zuckerburg and the company he founded are looking for political allies and thought influencers who they believe can help the company avoid regulation as lawmakers around the globe have begun to call for efforts to monitor or restrain Facebook’s activity, Robinson said.

“These comments and comparisons, it’s not surprising but deeply disappointing,” Robinson said. “These are the kind of arguments against which I’ve been pushing back now for years. The idea that you can bask in a delinquent idea of freedom of expression without some kind of rules of the road is just, well, bankrupt.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 18, 2019, 9:55 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She is Sherrilyn Ifill, not Iffill. The article also misspelled the last name of a conservative Writer. He is Ben Shapiro, not Shaprio.