Pelosi snubs Zuckerberg as Congress rachets up tech scrutiny

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote speech at F8, Facebook's developer conference, in San Jose on May 1, 2018.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is increasingly unhappy with social media giant Facebook Inc.’s handling of politics-related content, particularly after it refused to remove a doctored video of her.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg reached out to her twice in several weeks, but Pelosi didn’t respond, according to a person familiar with the matter who confirmed an account described earlier by the Washington Post and asked to remain anonymous.

The video — which was altered to make Pelosi’s voice appear slurred and distorted — revived concerns by Democrats that social media companies aren’t adapting quickly enough to address fake and misleading content ahead of the 2020 election.

Facebook and other tech giants are facing a heightened level of scrutiny in Washington for a variety of reasons. President Trump and Republicans have accused Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google of bias against conservatives. Regulators have stepped up scrutiny of possible antitrust behavior.


On Tuesday, House lawmakers castigated major tech companies for being unfair gatekeepers to content produced by traditional media outlets, but they didn’t agree on specific actions to address possible anti-competitive behavior.

And Facebook is facing new questions on its privacy practices after the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday about company emails that may indicate Zuckerberg was connected to potentially problematic privacy practices. The emails were uncovered as part of a probe by the Federal Trade Commission, the paper said, citing unidentified people.

But it’s the election-related concerns — spurred by Russian trolls spreading divisive posts during the 2016 campaign — that have angered Pelosi and the Democrats. The recent report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III described how a Russian entity “carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”

The House Intelligence Committee on Thursday is holding a hearing on a related topic — so-called deep fakes, in which audio and video content is fabricated to depict people saying or doing things they never actually said or did.

On Tuesday, an Instagram user posted a deep-fake video of Zuckerberg that appeared to show him talking about having “total control of millions of people’s stolen data” and that “whoever controls the data, controls the future.” The fake video remained visible Wednesday morning on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

Silicon Valley companies are taking slightly different approaches to the question of how to handle misleading or fake content.

In the case of the Pelosi video, YouTube, which is owned by Google, eventually deleted it from the platform. Facebook has declined to remove it, instead adding warnings to indicate that independent fact checkers have rated it as false.

“I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Pelosi told radio station KQED in an interview late last month.

Facebook has beefed up its lobbying operation in Washington. In 2018, the company set a record for federal lobbying, spending nearly $13 million up from the $11.5 million it spent in 2017, the previous recording, according to federal disclosures. The company spent $3.4 million in the first three months of this year, records show.

Both Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, have made visits to Washington to meet with lawmakers, testify in hearings before Congress and talk with activists. Last Month, Sandberg met lawmakers and with civil rights groups to discuss privacy legislation and voter suppression.

House and Whitelaw write for Bloomberg. This article was prepared with assistance from Naomi Nix.