Free expression — not ‘censorship’ — will best protect democracy, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tells Utah audience

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Friday it was more important for the social media giant to be understood than liked — and that new steps it is planning to protect free expression are “going to piss off a lot of people.”

The 35-year-old Facebook founder told a Utah audience he’d done a poor job of communicating the company’s core missions of connecting people and giving them a voice, while acknowledging the global platform and other tech companies also faced some momentous challenges.

“I really care about what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg said Friday in an hourlong appearance at this year’s Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City.

“There are real questions the internet raises around the democratic process, its integrity, around free expression vs. safety, around privacy and competition and well-being,” he said. “And I mean, we need to get these right.”

Zuckerberg also seemed to play down mounting claims that Facebook’s approach to personal privacy and a perceived reticence to filter deceptive information had worsened social divisions and posed a threat to democracy.

“The formula throughout history has been that empowering individuals, more voice, more connection between people, is the way you build strong communities,” he said.

“The last thing I want is for our products to be used to divide people or rip society apart in any kind of way,” Zuckerberg said.

“… But at some point, we’ve got to stand up and say, ‘No, we’re going to stand for free expression.’ Yeah, we’re going to take down the content that’s really harmful, but the line needs to be held at some point.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Shortly after walking onto the stage at the Salt Palace Convention Center to a standing ovation, the Facebook founder and controlling shareholder referred to a $1 billion data center the company is building in Utah’s Eagle Mountain as being in “Eagle Rock.”

“So, it’s Eagle Mountain,” his interviewer, Silicon Slopes executive director Clint Betts, said sheepishly, to explain laughter in the audience.

“Let’s be real here,” Zuckerberg replied. “Communicating is not my best thing, all right?”

The gaffe, he later said, was of a piece with Facebook’s failure in recent years to make itself understood as a champion for free speech and empowering individuals— ideas Zuckerberg said now appeared to be under attack.

“We just shied away for a long time talking about some of the principles that we believe in that are increasingly controversial in the world,” he said. “And I just think that we, for one, don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Earlier in the two-day summit for Utah’s tech sector, a producer of the 2019 film “The Great Hack” warned that more than a year since Facebook was implicated in a scheme to manipulate elections, “shockingly, nothing much has changed.”

The Netflix documentary details how British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook data to micro-target users with ads intended to sway results of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.

“I’m here to say that there’s not anything that is going to be different about our election in 2020,” film producer Geralyn Dreyfous told summit attendees on Thursday.

She and Mu Zhang, data security expert and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Utah, made the case that free platforms such as Facebook and Amazon do not adequately inform users about what may happen with their personal data.

“There is no quantifiable metric to help you to understand the value of your privacy as well as the value for the service you are provided," Zhang said. “And because of this lack of knowledge and transparency, people don’t have many choices.”

“The Great Hack,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, shows British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr calling the purveyors of Facebook, Google and Twitter “handmaidens to authoritarianism” for their apparent roles in subverting elections.

“These platforms which were created to connect us have now been weaponized,” Cadwalladr says in the film. “And it’s impossible to know what is what because it’s happening on exactly the same platforms that we chat to our friends or share baby photos.”

In his appearance Friday, Zuckerberg said Facebook had deployed artificial intelligence and other means to detect and quickly remove content promoting terrorism and child trafficking or inciting violence. But he said a more worrisome trend was at hand.

“Increasingly, we’re getting called in to censor a lot of different kinds of content that makes me really uncomfortable,” Zuckerberg said. “It kind of feels like the list of things that you’re not allowed to say socially keeps on growing.”

And I’m not really OK with that,” he said.

“The people who are criticizing and saying that more stuff needs to be censored are never the people who are actually at risk of being censored themselves,” Zuckerberg said. “They have their ways of getting stuff out.”

I feel like someone needs to stand up for giving everyone a voice,” he said.