Zuckerberg: Nesbitt ad rejection possible ‘mistake’

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday he didn’t know anything about his website’s rejection of an ad from a Michigan political candidate, suggesting the social-media platform may have made a “mistake.”

At a House hearing, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, asked Zuckerberg why former state Rep. Aric Nesbitt’s campaign announcement for the Michigan Senate would have been rejected for allegedly containing “shocking, disrespectful or sensational content, including ads that depict violence or threats of violence.”

Upton said the campaign ad was a “rather positive announcement” and questioned why it was excluded.

“I’m not sure where the threat was based on what he tried to post?” Upton said after reading the full ad aloud to Zuckerberg.

“Congressman, I’m not sure either. I’m not familiar with that case. It’s quite possible we made a mistake,” Zuckerberg replied, adding that his team would follow up after the hearing.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, also raised the Nesbitt situation with Zuckerberg during the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s hearing. Walberg said Nesbitt, R-Lawton, is his former legislative director.

“Can you assure me that ads and content are not being denied based on particular views?” Walberg asked.

“Yes, politically,” Zuckerberg replied. “Although when I hear that, I hear normal, political speech. We certainly are not going to allow ads for terrorist content, for example. So we’d be banning those views.”

Nesbitt, a former state lottery commissioner, highlighted the matter last week, suggesting that Facebook was trying to “censor conservatives.”

His campaign announcement included a photo of Nesbitt with veterans and said in part: “I will work to strengthen our economy, limit government, lower our auto insurance rates, balance the budget, stop sanctuary cities, pay down government debt and be a Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment (lawmaker).”

A copy of the response he received from Facebook says the statement wasn’t approved because it didn’t follow the website’s “advertising policies.”

“I’m just trying to get an understanding of what verbiage is actually being rejected by their algorithm. It seems to me that coastal elites have something against conservative Midwestern values,” Nesbitt said Wednesday.

“I’m just a farm boy from West Michigan trying to get my name known in two other counties that I haven’t represented before.”

Zuckerberg also testified on Tuesday before a joint Senate hearing, where he answered questions about potential regulation of social media companies amid scandals involving consumer privacy and Russian election intrusion.

During testimony, Zuckerberg said certain content clearly isn’t permitted on Facebook including hate and terrorist speech, nudity and anything that would make people feel “unsafe.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Zuckerberg about concerns that Facebook has blocked other conservative posts and pages and “engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”

Zuckerberg said he understands where that concern comes from “because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place.”

“This is actually a concern that I have and that I try to root out in the company — is making sure that we do not have any bias in the work that we do, and I think it is a fair concern that people would at least wonder about,” Zuckerberg told Cruz.

The former presidential hopeful asked whether Zuckerberg knows the political orientation of the 20,000 people engaged in content or security review for Facebook.

“No, senator. We do not generally ask people about their political orientation when they’re joining the company,” Zuckerberg replied.

GOP South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, asked Zuckerberg for assurance that when the company improves its tools to weed out “bad actors,” that it “errs on the side of protecting speech, especially political speech from all different corners.”

Zuckerberg said it is Facebook’s approach.

“If there is an eminent threat of harm, we’re going to take a conservative position on that and make sure that we flag that and understand that more broadly,” Zuckerberg responded.

“But, overall, I want to make sure that we provide people with the most voice possible. I want the widest possible expression, and I don’t want anyone at our company to make any decisions based on the — the political ideology of the content.”

Nesbitt, who is running to represent Senate District 26, said Facebook should make public its method for rejecting political ads. He noted that campaigns today have to be on social media to effectively get their message out.

“I look forward to hearing what their real reason is, what their algorithm issue was, and why this message was rejected and other messages weren’t,” he said.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, pressed Zuckerberg on the lawmakers’ questions he didn’t answer and asked him to explain the extent to which Facebook tracks and collects information about users across the web.

Zuckerberg said his team would get back to her with details.

“Some things are striking during this conversation. As CEO, you didn’t know some key facts,” Dingell said.

“I worry that when I hear companies ‘value’ our privacy, it’s meant in monetary terms, and not the moral obligation they have to protect it. Data protection is like clean air and water. There need to be clear rules of the road.”