Facebook’s evolving status: From apologetic to candid

Mark Zuckerberg’s change in status from apologetic to candid has been slowly morphing before our eyes and ears for some time. And as the social-networking giant continues to pile up record revenue and earnings, his tone has hardened despite a federal investigation into its business practices and an upcoming presidential election that has put the company in the crosshairs of liberals and conservatives.

Zuckerberg was blunt in late January, when he said the social-networking giant was going to stand for principles it believes in regardless of what people think. “This is the new approach, and I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people,” he said at Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2020 in Salt Lake City. “But frankly the old approach was pissing off a lot of people too, so let’s try something different.”

His comments came hard on the heels of comments to analysts following Facebook’s quarterly earnings report. “My goal for this next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood,” Zuckerberg said. “Because in order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for.”

The change in attitude is most vividly on display with Facebook’s FB, +0.89% pledge in January to stubbornly cling to accepting all paid political ads at a time when Twitter Inc. TWTR, -0.82% and Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL, +0.67%GOOG, +0.62% Google have vowed to crack down on governments and political groups using their platforms to spread false and misleading information.

See also: Facebook declines to limit political ad targeting

For the sake of its bottom line, Facebook may have no choice. Some 98.5% of its $70.7 billion in 2019 sales came from ads. And with some Wall Street analysts predicting headwinds in the ad industry, Facebook can’t turn away when Mike Bloomberg and President Donald Trump’s re-election organization are pouring hundreds of millions into digital ads.

It’s a straightforward approach Facebook is willing to take. Awash in record revenue and profit, and behind the determined steady hand of Zuckerberg, the company has toughened its stance on political ads and is ready to take hits from both sides of the political aisle, according to tech policy experts in Silicon Valley and the Beltway.

“They acknowledge it is a huge issue that needs to be regulated, and yet they allow all forms of it – the deep fake ad of Nancy Pelosi, Trump ads, Bloomberg ads,” Anamitra Deb, senior director of beneficial technology at Omidyar Network, told MarketWatch in a phone interview. “They will make a lot of money, but this strategy could lead to even more [regulatory] scrutiny down the road.”

Before Facebook announced its unequivocal stance on political ads, Zuckerberg set the tone with a speech at Georgetown University in October that espoused all forms of speech, including paid political ads that could be considered misleading. “I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people,” he said. “And as long as enough of us keep fighting for this, I believe that more people’s voices will eventually help us work through these issues together and write a new chapter in our history — where from all of our individual voices and perspectives, we can bring the world closer together.”

Yet Facebook’s “defiance” on free speech and moderating content like political ads on its platform “misconstrues the intent of the First Amendment,” Chris Lewis, chief executive of Public Knowledge, told MarketWatch in an email. The First Amendment, he said, “is a prohibition against government regulation of free speech except in specific circumstances. Platforms like Facebook are free to regulate speech and they do it every day in how they moderate their content to make Facebook a place that is safe for community building.”

Facebook declined comment but those familiar with the company’s strategy say it reflects an evolving tone in which Zuckerberg and other executives candidly describe their values and thinking behind decisions such as supporting free speech and enabling strong encryption on its services. In short, executives believe they need to do a better job of describing who they are to gain the trust of consumers and investors.

See also: Opinion: Zuckerberg appears to be done apologizing for Facebook and taking Tim Cook’s punches

Facebook’s pivot, which stretches back to October 2018 and a conference call in which Zuckerberg did not apologize once, deepened in late 2019 with his address on free speech at Georgetown University.

“Overall, this has been an important year,” Zuckerberg told analysts during a conference call to discuss third-quarter results that beat on earnings but slightly missed on revenue. “It’s been a tough year, but we built products that I’m proud of and we made a lot of progress on some of our hardest issues.”

Then there is simple human nature: Facebook is asserting its message after taking a series of body blows from Congressional members for more than a year following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and 2016 presidential election.

“I think everyone is a bit tired of the D.C. outrage, and in an election year the signal to noise ratio is worse than ever,” Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for digital-rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told MarketWatch in an email message.

While Zuckerberg remains open to regulation of big tech, there too has been a subtle change in his approach.

Online content should be regulated with a system somewhere between the existing rules used for the telecoms and media industries, Zuckerberg said at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 15. ”I do think that there should be regulation on harmful content … there’s a question about which framework you use for this,” Zuckerberg said during a question-and-answer session.

In an op-ed piece for the Financial Times on Feb. 16, Zuckerberg again called for regulation of Big Tech but he warned regulation could have “unintended consequences, especially for small businesses that can’t do sophisticated data analysis and marketing on their own.”

“If regulation makes it harder for them to share data and use these tools, that could disproportionately hurt them and inadvertently advantage larger companies that can,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Still, rather than relying on individual companies to set their own standards, we’d benefit from a more democratic process.”

Such a distinction is important, especially as the Federal Trade Commission looks into the acquisitions of smaller companies by Facebook, Apple Inc. AAPL, +1.98% , Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +0.63% , Google, and Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +1.81% 

When it was suggested shortly after the 2016 presidential election that fake news on Facebook helped Trump get elected, Zuckerberg dismissed the idea outright. “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said. Several months later, he embarked on an extended apology tour.

These days, Facebook’s mantra of saying “I’m sorry” may be a thing of the past.

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