While Twitter Confronts Trump, Zuckerberg Keeps Facebook Out of It

SAN FRANCISCO — Earlier this week, as Twitter executives waded into a confrontation with President Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, took a very different tack: He kept his head down.

Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, took to his site not long after to say Twitter would not back down, presenting a stark contrast to Mr. Zuckerberg, who, in an interview a day earlier with Fox News, said Facebook wasn’t going to judge Mr. Trump’s posts.

“We’ve been pretty clear on our policy that we think that it wouldn’t be right for us to do fact checks for politicians,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “I think in general, private companies probably shouldn’t be — or especially these platform companies — shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Mr. Zuckerberg’s reminder that Facebook would not interfere with posts from Mr. Trump — even if they violate rules that would apply to other people — was in part the product of his longtime belief that his company should avoid getting into the political fray and let its three billion users have their say.

His assurance that his company would not be an “arbiter of truth” in political discussion was also indicative of an aggressive effort over the last year or so to court Republicans in Washington and conservative voices in the media. The goal: to keep regulators off his giant internet company’s back.

By staying on the sidelines as Twitter does battle with Mr. Trump and his allies, Mr. Zuckerberg could gain unlikely Republican friends to stave off regulatory intervention into his business, which lawmakers around the world have threatened for more than a year.

Many people in the tech industry believe regulators — not economic collapse brought on by the coronavirus pandemic or any other problem — are the one existential risk to Mr. Zuckerberg’s business.

“Zuckerberg’s instincts have been right,” said Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. “Zuckerberg said, ‘We trust people to make up their minds.’”

But Mr. Zuckerberg’s hands-off approach to Mr. Trump’s increasingly incendiary behavior on social media runs the risk of alienating some users who think the rules about what can be posted to Facebook should be applied equally to everyone, including world leaders. It could also infuriate some of the company’s Silicon Valley work force, who still believe Facebook isn’t doing enough to counter misinformation campaigns.

And it could lend more ammunition to critics who say Mr. Zuckerberg is still unwilling — or unable — to own up to his company’s role in disseminating information to the world, particularly when many news organizations are collapsing.

“Twitter and Facebook both have community standards and policies to combat voter suppression, hate and the incitement of violence, and yet Twitter is actually enforcing those standards against the president of the United States and Facebook is doing nothing,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights. “The harm from this approach by Facebook is mass confusion, voter suppression and possible violence.”

Twitter has started to experience the repercussions of taking on the White House. Several Republican lawmakers and regulators argued — on Twitter — that Twitter was being hypocritical because it was focusing on Mr. Trump while allowing other world leaders to spread lies.

After Twitter applied the warning label on a tweet from Mr. Trump on Friday morning, Ajit Pai, the F.C.C. chairman, called on Twitter to apply its rules against inciting violence equally to other world leaders. He provided a link to to anti-Israel tweets from Iran’s supreme leader.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, retweeted Mr. Pai’s post and called for criminal action against Twitter.

That kind of confrontation is exactly what Mr. Zuckerberg, who controls a far larger internet megaphone than Mr. Dorsey, wants to avoid. In a speech at Georgetown University in October 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg declared that political speech would be protected on Facebook, including lies made by politicians on the site.

“Twitter is doubling down and they are showing how amazingly bad they are at the politics on this,” said Rachel Bovard, a senior adviser to the conservative Internet Accountability Project and a former aide to Republican senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. “Republicans want social media to be a pass-through, a billboard. They believe bad speech will be countered by good speech and that is what Zuckerberg is saying he will do.”

But when it comes to political discussion and advertising, the companies have diverged over the last year.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s courtship of conservatives has been aided by Joel Kaplan, a former aide in President George W. Bush’s administration and a well-connected Washington operative. Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Kaplan have tried to convince Republicans that although Silicon Valley may be largely left-leaning, Facebook’s platform itself is neutral.

Courting conservatives seems to have helped Facebook in Washington, but the strategy has not been entirely embraced by the company’s employees.

Some have long believed that a double standard applies to conservatives on the platform. In discussions posted to the company’s internal message boards and privately between employees on Friday, workers wondered what the final breaking point will be for Facebook to enforce its rules evenly, according to three people familiar with the company’s internal deliberations.

Late Friday afternoon, Mr. Zuckerberg wrote a post to his personal Facebook page explaining why Mr. Trump’s posts were not flagged in any way. He also addressed employees in a question-and-answer video session.

Despite what he called his own “visceral negative reaction” to Mr. Trump’s language, Mr. Zuckerberg said he felt compelled to keep the posts up on Facebook and Instagram, and that the president’s language did not violate the company’s policies.

“I know many people are upset that we’ve left the President’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote.

“ I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this,” he continued, “but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”

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