Thursday morning on Facebook Live, Axios Founder Mike Allen interviewed Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Surprisingly, self-proclaimed liberal Sandberg ardently supported free speech online, and talked about the danger of censorship on platforms such as Twitter –– and how Facebook will not be following suit.
Facebook recently turned over Russia-related ads to the House intelligence committee, who will be releasing them to the general public. According to CNN, "Facebook told Congress last month it had sold roughly 3,000 ads to 470 Russian accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm ... the apparent goal of the ads was to amplify political discord" in the American electorate.
Many of Allen's questions revolved around Facebook's level of cooperation with Congress, but things got interesting when Allen asked: Had these ads come from real accounts, not fake accounts, would you have let them run?
"If they were run by legitimate people, we would let them run," answered Sandberg. "We spend a lot of time on what content we run on our platform," she continued. "We don't allow hate, we don't allow violence, we don't allow bullying –– and we work hard to get that stuff down ... But a lot of what we allow on Facebook is people expressing themselves ... that means you allow other people to say things that you don't like and go against your core beliefs –– and it's not just content, it's ads."
The conversation quickly turned to Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., whose Senate campaign launch ad was deemed inflammatory by Twitter and removed on Monday. By Tuesday, the platform put the video back up. The company had initially claimed they violated the site's terms of service, due to mention of Planned Parenthood's sale of "baby body parts." Sandberg noted that she fervently disagreed with Blackburn's politics, but that the question remained: Should divisive political ads run?
"Our answer is yes, because when you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for all people," she said, echoing her earlier support for the First Amendment. "The responsibility of an open platform is to let people express themselves. We don't check the information people put on Facebook before they run, and I don't think anyone should want us to do that."
Sandberg is right, and she understands what thousands of college students around the country are blind to: The First Amendment protects the best and worst among us. Without it, we'd live in fear of censorship and ostracization. Our ability to publicly talk about divisive issues would be curtailed, and it would affect the vast majority of us, not just the fringe.
No entity, whether it be Congress or Facebook, should be given such expansive power to crack down on speech they don't like. And, as Sandberg says, we shouldn't want companies to have this power. In her defense of Blackburn, she exemplifies a liberal society: You can adamantly hate what someone is saying and still staunchly defend their right to say it.
Facebook could be choosing to crack down on content or ads in this storm of tough publicity. Instead, their top people are thoughtfully deliberating on the value of democracy, and how to continuously protect it.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.
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