Sasse Asks Zuckerberg to Define 'Hate Speech'

Facebook CEO: 'I think that this is a really hard question'

April 10, 2018

Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) pressed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Tuesday over how his platform would define "hate speech" on Tuesday, wondering whether pro-life voices could be stifled if deemed too upsetting.

Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday for the first of two days of testimony in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that affected upwards of 87 million Facebook users, amid a larger debate about privacy on the social network behemoth he founded.

In his opening bit of testimony, Zuckerberg said, "it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy."

During his round of questioning, Sasse said he was worried Facebook may decide it needs to "police a whole bunch of speech" as a result.

"Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform," Sasse said. "Can you define hate speech?"

"Senator, I think that this is a really hard question. And I think it's one of the reasons why we struggle with it. There are certain definitions that we have around, you know, calling for violence—" Zuckerberg said.

Sasse said they could agree on that, but he said he was more focused on the "psychological categories around speech."

"You used language of safety and protection earlier," Sasse said. "We see this happening on college campuses all across the country. It's dangerous. Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts somebody else's feelings."

Sasse brought up the charged debate over abortion as an example, asking Zuckerberg to imagine pro-lifers being banished from discussing the issue on Facebook if their speech was deemed a threat.

"I certainly would not want that to be the case," Zuckerberg said.

"But it might really be unsettling to people who've had an abortion to have an open debate about that, wouldn't it?" Sasse asked.

"It might be, but I don't think that would fit any of the definitions of what we have," Zuckerberg said. "But I do generally agree with the point that you're making, which is as we're able to technologically shift towards especially having A.I. proactively look at content, I think that that's going to create massive questions for society about what obligations we want to require companies to fulfill."