Tech

Inside Mark Zuckerbergs private meetings with US conservative pundits

WASHINGTON — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hosting informal talks and small, off-the-record dinners with conservative journalists, commentators and at least one Republican lawmaker in recent months to talk about issues like free speech and discuss partnerships.

The dinners, which began in July, are part of Zuckerbergs broader effort to cultivate friends on the right amid outrage by U.S. President Donald Trump and his allies over alleged “bias” against conservatives at Facebook and other major social media companies. “Im under no illusions that hes a conservative but I think he does care about some of our concerns,” said one person familiar with the gatherings, which multiple sources have confirmed.

News of the outreach is likely to further fuel suspicions on the left that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the White House and stay out of Trumps crosshairs. The president threatened to sue Facebook and Google in June and has in the past pressured the Justice Department to take action against his perceived foes.

“The discussion in Silicon Valley is that Zuckerberg is very concerned about the Justice Department, under Bill Barr, bringing an enforcement action to break up the company,” said one cybersecurity researcher and former government official based in Silicon Valley. “So the fear is that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the Trump administration by not cracking down on right-wing propaganda.”

Facebook has been criticized in recent days, including by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, for its ad policy, which exempts politicians from third-party fact-checking and arguably facilitates the spread of disinformation.

Facebook changed its policies following Russias election interference in 2016 in an attempt to halt the spread of false news and foreign-bought ads.

When asked about the gatherings, a senior Trump administration official said “the White House is looking for meaningful steps from Facebook on a number of fronts,” including “competition, free speech for everybody including conservatives, and privacy.”

“Nominal outreach wont cut it,” the official added.

As part of the series, Zuckerberg met earlier this year with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who insinuated that Facebook had become a monopoly during a congressional hearing last year; Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has fingered Zuckerberg as contributing to “the death of free speech in America”; and conservative radio talk host Hugh Hewitt, who has cautioned against a DOJ enforcement action but has called for a “new regulatory regime” to minimize “Big Tech bias” against conservatives.

CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, AEI fellow and former Washington Free Beacon Editor Matt Continetti, Town Hall Editor and Fox News contributor Guy Benson, and Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell have also attended the dinners, according to the person familiar with the gatherings. Washington Examiner chief political correspondent and Fox News contributor Byron York also confirmed his attendance but declined to disclose the contents of the dinner because there was a prior agreement that it was off-the-record.

Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey has engaged in similar outreach to conservatives in an attempt to gain their trust | Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesman for Graham confirmed that the South Carolina senator has spoken with Zuckerberg. Carlson, Continetti, Benson, Bozell and Hewitt declined to comment. Ham and Shapiro did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Facebook, noting Zuckerbergs recent meetings in Washington with Democrats, said in a statement, “For years, Mark Zuckerberg has met with elected officials and thought leaders all across the political spectrum.”

Each dinner has been hosted at one of Zuckerbergs homes in California, and at least one lasted around two and a half to three hours. The conversations center around “free expression, unfair treatment of conservatives, the appeals process for real or perceived unfair treatment, fact checking, partnerships, and privacy,” the source familiar with the meetings said.

“My perception of him was more positive than I anticipated,” this person added, referring to Zuckerberg. “He was receptive and thoughtful.”

“Ive always thought that he wanted to make things right by conservatives,” said another person familiar with the dinners. “I think hes been genuine in hoping that might happen. Sometimes I think the headwinds are so strong in Palo Alto that I dont think even he can succeed.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has engaged in similar outreach to conservatives in an attempt to gain their trust, and hosted a private dinner in Washington, D.C. with GOP political operatives and commentators in July 2018, according to the Washington Post.

Facebooks critics on the left have argued that the company is overcorrecting and trying to curry favor with the Trump administration.

Facebook changed its policies following Russias election interference in 2016 in an attempt to halt the spread of false news and foreign-bought ads. But the company has also been working to minimize and correct the appearance of bias in those policies ever since it was reported that the companys employees may have suppressed stories from right-leaning publications and authors in its “Trending Topics” section.

As part of those efforts, the company launched a yearlong “conservative bias audit” in 2018, which was conducted by former Sen. Jon Kyl and a team from his law firm Covington and Burling.

Kyl interviewed 133 conservative lawmakers and groups for the audit, which ended in August and resulted in changes to its advertising policies. Its unclear whether the Zuckerberg dinners are another facet of that project.

Allegations that Facebook censors conservatives, however, have gone largely unsubstantiated—conservative publications including Fox, Breitbart, and Shapiros Daily Wire were among the top publishers on Facebook as of this past May, according to data from the social media tracking firm Newswhip.

Trumps 2016 campaign also took advantage of Facebooks offer to embed employees, who acted as political operatives and provided critical support to the campaigns social media operations, according to a study released in November 2017. (Hillary Clintons campaign declined a similar offer.)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during an opening keynote event in April | Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images

Facebooks critics on the left have argued that the company is overcorrecting and trying to curry favor with the Trump administration as it faces increasing scrutiny over its sloppy privacy practices and potential monopoly in social media. “Facebook made a grave mistake in allowing external political actors to direct an assessment of company policy and practices,” Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said after the “conservative bias” audit was completed in August.

The ongoing talks between Zuckerberg and prominent conservatives have attracted the attention of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which conducts oversight on issues related to telecommunications and consumer protection and is “aware” of allegations that conservatives “are trying to work the refs” ahead of 2020, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The committees Democrats sent a previously unreported letter to Facebook in June, after a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral on the platform, asking what the company was doing to address “the spreading of political disinformation by real accounts.”

“We are concerned that you and your company are not taking these occurrences seriously and are grossly unprepared for the 2020 election,” they wrote. “Specifically, we are concerned that thereRead More – Source

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