Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday, the latest sign of the tech mogul’s personal outreach amid mounting scrutiny from Washington.
Despite the president’s history of accusing Facebook of being anti-Trump, suggesting the company is an antitrust problem, and criticizing its digital currency, Libra, both Trump and the company put a positive spin on the meeting.
Zuckerberg “had a good, constructive meeting with President Trump at the White House today,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
News of the Trump sit-down emerged after Zuckerberg made the rounds on Capitol Hill on Thursday, holding a series of one-on-one sessions with Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley, a top tech industry critic.
Accompanied by an entourage that included Facebook’s global policy chief, Joel
Kaplan, and trailed by a sea of reporters and TV cameras, Zuckerberg brushed off media questions as he huddled behind closed doors with Hawley (R-Mo.) and other GOP senators, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
Hawley told reporters after his meeting with Zuckerberg that he called on the Facebook CEO to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram — two of the company’s biggest acquisitions that have drawn scrutiny in Washington. Spinning off those assets, Hawley said, would prove Facebook is serious about addressing concerns over competition and privacy.
“That’s what they should do. They should spin them off,” the senator said. “Sell them right now and show that you have confidence in the core product, in the core Facebook product, prove that you don’t have to buy companies to innovate … prove that you’re not afraid of competition.”
Zuckerberg was “not receptive to those suggestions,” he added.
Hawley said he also raised “the censorship issue” and claimed the Facebook CEO acknowledged that “bias is an issue they have struggled with internally for years.” Republicans have been ramping up accusations that the big internet companies silence conservative voices on their platforms.
A Facebook spokesperson said that Zuckerberg’s remarks to Hawley were about the “perception of bias” in Silicon Valley, and that “he went on to say it is something about which we need to be aware.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), too, pressed Zuckerberg on “bias against conservatives on Facebook’s platform,” according to a Lee spokesperson. Their discussion spanned government regulation, antitrust enforcement, privacy issues and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that shields websites like Facebook from liability over content posted by users, the spokesperson said.
Lawmakers of both parties have increasingly floated the idea of revising Section 230 to force internet giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google to take more active measures to police their platforms. While Democrats primarily want the social media giant to get rid of disinformation and hate speech, Republicans have dangled the prospect of weakening the liability protection if Facebook doesn’t end political “censorship.”
Facebook has consistently denied demoting conservative speech, and no evidence has emerged of systemic bias at the company. But GOP leaders have seized on individual Facebook takedowns or enforcement actions involving right-leaning accounts to accuse it of viewpoint discrimination.
During a dinner with a group of senators on Wednesday night, Zuckerberg got an earful about the company’s approach to privacy, competition and election security, according to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who organized the gathering.
“I think he understands that self-regulation isn’t going to [work],” said Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The days of the Wild West in terms of not just Facebook but all these enterprises can’t continue.”
Zuckerberg is slated to continue his meetings on Capitol Hill on Friday.
According to sources familiar with plans but not authorized to speak on the record, Zuckerberg’s agenda includes sessions with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the top Republican on the House Energy & Commerce committee; House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and antitrust panel chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.); and Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.). Zuckerberg was also due to meet with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Like Trump, McCarthy has accused Facebook and other internet companies of censoring conservatives online. The three House Judiciary leaders — Nadler, Cicilline and Collins — launched a sweeping bipartisan investigation into the state of competition in the tech industry earlier this year, including Facebook. And Schiff has pressed the company to step up its fight against online misinformation, particularly the use of sophisticated video forgeries known as “deepfakes.”
Facebook has been under intense pressure since the 2016 election, when reports emerged of a wide-ranging Russian disinformation campaign on the social network that sought to promote Donald Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Amid the intensifying political heat, Zuckerberg in a March op-ed signaled an openness to regulation on four fronts: online privacy, content moderation, election security and data portability — the right for users to transfer their personal information between digital services.
It’s Zuckerberg’s first trip to Capitol Hill since his high-profile, marathon testimony to Congress last year about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Since then, the company has come under even more government scrutiny over its handling of consumer data, online content and business practices.
Facebook faces an antitrust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and a separate probe by a group of state attorneys general. The Justice Department is also conducting a broad tech industry investigation thought to include Facebook.
Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other 2020 presidential candidates have called for Facebook to be broken up.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a frequent Facebook critic who has backed calls to split up the company, attended Wednesday’s dinner with Zuckerberg. Blumenthal said he raised the company’s “repeated failures to protecting election security and consumer privacy.”
“It’s no secret that I’ve been a tough critic of Facebook, so I was glad for the opportunity to discuss my concerns directly with Mr. Zuckerberg,” he said.