EU Commissioner Vestager slammed Mark Zuckerberg for allowing lies in political ads: That’s not democracy, it’s ‘manipulation’

EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager

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EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager
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Web Summit/YouTube/Business Insider

  • EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, known for slapping huge fines on US tech companies, spoke at one of Europe’s largest tech conferences on Thursday.
  • When she was asked about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg‘s decision to allow politicians to run deceitful ads, her response was scathing.
  • “The risk is we completely undermine out democracy,” she said, adding that Facebook was allowing “manipulation” of voters.
  • She had a message for Zuckerberg directly: instead of having Facebook talk about protecting democracy “it’s time to put action behind their words.”
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EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is known as Europe’s enforcer. She’s the anti-trust regulator who’s slapped record fines on US tech companies, including $9.4 billion worth of fines against Google.

On Thursday evening, Vestager spoke at Web Summit in Lisbon, one of Europe’s largest tech conferences, where she had a number of fiery words for Facebook generally and CEO Mark Zuckerberg specifically.

Vestager was asked during a fireside chat about Zuckerberg’s controversial policy to allow politicians to lie in their ads. Zuckerberg has defended this decision on a free-speech basis, likening the fact-checking of political ads to censorship and saying that in a democracy it’s better if people can “see for themselves” what others are saying.

But Vestager argued that Zuckerberg has it backwards and his refusal to abide by the standards of the non-digital world puts “democracy at risk.”

She said the democratic world has already, long-ago, hashed out the rules over political speech. “We have discussed this in depth … this is the framework for political advertising, this is the framework for our political debates. Why that should be different in a digital world, I don’t understand,” she said.

By opting out of those conventions Facebook is putting democracy at risk Vestager aside:

“Maybe we should do even more. The risk is we completely undermine out democracy. Democracy is supposed to take place in the open, where our political ads can be fact-checked, contradicted, different opinions can be offered, it can be supported. But if it’s only in your feed, it’s only between you and Facebook and the micro-targeting of who you are, that’s not democracy anymore. That is just privatizing de facto manipulation of who you are going to vote for.

She said that she and her colleagues pay close attention whenever Zuckerberg testifies before the US Congress. Last year, he refused to testify in the UK over fake news in the wake ofthe Cambridge Analytica scandal.

He has, however been saying since 2017, “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity.”

So when asked on stage if she had a direct message to Zuckerberg, Vestager said: “What is inspiring is not just what you say, it’s what you do.”

Zuckerberg is “an amazing creator of an amazing company and if he himself put action behind his words, we would see change rapidly. And that would be very welcome,” she said.

By “action” she offered the example of Twitter, which recently announced it was not going to allow political advertising on its social media service at all.

“That is, of course, not the end of that because you may still have bots and troll farms and all of that, but it’s an important step forward where the company shows, ‘these are our values,’ ” she said and so she repeated to Facebook’s top brass what she wants to see: “Put action behind their words.”