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Sheryl Sandberg Wants Facebook’s Defense to Be About Free Speech. It’s Not.

Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To cooperate with a congressional inquiry, Facebook has dispatched chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to Washington to meet with policymakers and assure them that Facebook has things under control. As part of that effort, Sandberg today participated in a Q&A with Mike Allen, as part of the company’s “Hard Questions” program that tries to reconcile the company’s many roles. The interview was broadcast live on Facebook.

Allen, no doubt a fine human being and a very successful journalist, is not generally the first reporter you’d pick to ask hard questions of the powerful, and the Q&A was largely unsatisfying, with Sandberg finding new ways to say, more or less, “Just trust us.” But it’s a telling interview, in part because it lets us see the company’s line of defense against the charge that it allowed its platform to be weaponized in last year’s election: As Sandberg frames it, the debate over the posts Facebook decides to allow on its platform comes down to “diverse ideas” and “free speech.”

And Sandberg paints herself as a free-speech absolutist. The most interesting exchange of the whole Q&A came when Allen brought up “Russian ads” — ads pushing divisive topics bought by accounts secretly connected to a Kremlin-linked online propaganda operation. Asked if Facebook would let those same ads run had they been bought by legitimate accounts, users who were really who they claimed to be, Sandberg said yes. For Facebook, the contents are beside the point. “The thing about free expression is, when you allow free expression, you allow free expression,” Sandberg said.

That includes information that is flat-out wrong, even in paid advertisements. Sandberg tried to deflect some blame on Twitter, which earlier this week removed an ad for Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn that referred to Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue, a long-running and unfounded conservative talking point. “I am a staunch supporter of reproductive rights. I am a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is not selling baby body parts,” she told the audience, stating in clear terms that she considered Blackburn’s claim untrue. And then she backpedaled. “But the question is, ‘Should divisive political or issue ads run?’ Our answer is yes.”

“It sounds like you’d be fine with it,” Allen asked, “it” being ads that further spread false information. Sandberg didn’t dispute the assertion: “When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for all people.”

Sandberg’s position is, on the surface, not that different from many newspapers or other publishers who don’t rigorously fact-check the advertisements they carry in their pages. But advertisements in those outlets are clearly labeled and distinct in design and format from news articles, and maybe more importantly, the outlets themselves are in the business of producing accurate information. Facebook is not — quite. Less than five minutes after saying she’d allow the Blackburn ad, she told Allen, “We know that people want accurate information on Facebook, and that’s what we want to see.”

Facebook is anxious about free speech: The company does not want to get into the business of controlling who can say what. All platforms of a certain scale and diversity struggle with this issue. But it’s ultimately a red herring. The issue with Facebook is not the company’s control over speech — it’s the company’s control over attention. You can post almost anything on the site, but Facebook’s News Feed is sorted primarily by what the program thinks you want to see, and what advertisers are paying to put in front of you. As this past year demonstrated, there are plenty of bad actors trying to game that system. Aside from those examples, plenty of legitimate advertisers are pushing misinformation, which Facebook continues to allow and profit from under the guise of “free speech.”

Sandberg Wants Facebook to Be About Free Speech. It’s Not.