What counts as "dangerous content" on Facebook? Mark Zuckerberg couldn't tell you

The Facebook CEO has come repeatedly under fire for his site's role in the spread of hate speech and misinformation

The Asahi Shimbun/The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the podium at Georgetown University on Thursday in an unprecedented move to address freedom of speech and the ever-growing criticism of his platform.

The Facebook founder delivered a nearly 40-minute speech detailing what he previously said is his “most comprehensive take” on the subject yet. In the past, Zuckerberg has gone the route of publishing lengthy status updates or blog posts to weigh in on controversial issues.

Referencing times of social tension and political unrest throughout US history, including the civil rights movement, Zuckerberg said we now find ourselves “at another crossroads” faced with two options: stand for free expression, or pull back and risk losing our voice in the democratic process.

"Where do we draw the line?" — The challenge, Zuckerberg said, is in defining what counts as “dangerous speech.”

While some potentially-harmful content may be relatively easy to identify and remove, such as terrorist propaganda or viral hoaxes, individual expression poses a much more complex issue, particularly in the case of hate speech, according to Zuckerberg. This also includes the controversial viewpoints of politicians.

“I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said. “I believe that people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” he added.

According to the Facebook CEO, the fight for individual expression faces three major threats:

  • Legal, in which we are “increasingly seeing laws around the world that undermine expression” and the rights of the individual.
  • “The platforms themselves,” including Facebook, in which companies make decisions “that affect people’s ability to speak.”
  • Cultural attempts to “define more speech as dangerous” simply because it does not align with the individual’s own beliefs.

“You can’t impose tolerance top-down,” Zuckerberg said. “It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for our society that we all feel like we’re a part of. That’s how we make progress.”

So what now? — Despite the out of character method of delivery, Zuckerberg’s latest attempt to address the free speech controversy mirrors his shallowly optimistic statements of the past, offering little in the way of a solution. Progress on that front, according to the Facebook CEO, is in the hands of the people.

“Progress isn’t linear,” Zuckerberg said. “Sometimes we have to take two steps forward and one step back. But if we can’t agree to talk about the issues, then we can’t even take the first step.”

“I think we need to recognize what is at stake,” he added, “and come together to stand for voice and free expression at this critical moment.”