Warren escalates Facebook fight with ad targeting Zuckerberg

SAN FRANCISCO — Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has escalated her tiff with Facebook by running an ad — on Facebook — taking aim at its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s the latest example of growing resentment of Big Tech by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The list of grievances is long: Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are too big and powerful. They’re bad for privacy , public discourse, democracy and small business. They’re spying on us, contributing to economic inequality and hooking us and our children on addictive, useless services. The companies, of course, object to these characterizations.

Warren, who in March proposed breaking up big tech companies, began running a text ad on Facebook last Thursday to take aim at Zuckerberg.

“Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” the ad reads. It then goes on to say that while this isn’t true, Zuckerberg has “given Donald Trump free rein to lie” on Facebook.

Warren’s ad is taking issue with Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking politicians’ speech or ads, the way it has outside parties fact-check news stories and other posts. Facebook has refused to remove a misleading video ad from President Donald Trump’s campaign targeting Democrat Joe Biden.

Political speech and tech companies’ role in spreading or stifling it has been an ongoing issue for both sides. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, urged Twitter to suspend Trump’s account for violating the service’s rules, while Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is battling what he considers tech companies’ bias against conservatives. Hawley has also told Zuckerberg that he should sell off WhatsApp and Instagram.

The companies, in general, are trying to maintain a neutral stance, even if that draws the ire of politicians as divergent as the president and those trying to impeach him. In response to Warren, Facebook tweeted that voters rather than companies ought to be the ones weighing candidates’ speech.

Social media services are “caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Andrew Guess, a Princeton University political scientist who studies social media and its effects on political opinion.

Blocking or suspending accounts for speech can prompt complaints of political bias or censorship, but a hands-off approach may be viewed as a free pass to politicians like Trump.

“Anything they do is going to attract criticism,” Guess said. “That, of course, makes them a target.”

Beyond discourse and privacy, antitrust concerns have emerged as a major concern for lawmakers and candidates. This wasn’t the case in 2016, when grumbling about the outsized power of tech was largely confined to activists and those on the most liberal end of the spectrum.

Still, while there have been congressional hearings, investigations and fines, including a record $5 billion against Facebook, little has changed for Big Tech.

Democrats and Republicans may agree that Big Tech has problems, but they often differ on what those problems are — and how to fix them.

A Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass legislation that seems too anti-business. That includes breaking up tech companies seen as too monopolistic. The same likely goes for any privacy law that restricts companies’ ability to target ads to their liking. An ongoing impeachment probe makes any congressional action even less likely.

Still, talking up Big Tech’s problems has proven to be popular political rhetoric.

Warren’s call to break up tech companies has even garnered support from rivals such as Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who retweeted Warren for what he said was the first time. Cruz said “she’s right — Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, another leading Democratic candidate, has also said breaking up Amazon, Google and Apple is “something we should definitely take a look at.”

Trump has been uneven in his criticisms. Amazon has been a frequent target, though that is due in part to CEO Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post. He’s met with Zuckerberg privately, but he’s also tweeted that “Facebook was always anti-Trump” and accused it of colluding with the news media against him.

Amid all this, at least in public, the companies have mostly kept a low profile. But there are occasional glimpses of behind-the-scenes activity. Leaked audio from an internal Facebook meeting in July captured Zuckerberg acknowledging that if “someone like” Warren is elected, he expects Facebook to fight back — and prevail — against efforts to break it up in court. But he added: “And does that still suck for us? Yeah.”

Amazon, by contrast, briefly tried to debate the candidates on Twitter.

In April, after Warren complained that Amazon and other big tech companies have “too much power,” the company responded by pointing the finger at its main rival: “Walmart is much larger; Amazon is less than 4% of U.S. retail.”

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a TV interview in June that Amazon pays workers “starvation wages,” the company tweeted that she “is just wrong.”

Expect the political pushback to continue, from both parties, said Joshua Tucker, co-director of New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab.

“It’s a bipartisan issue,” he said. “But the right and the left are criticizing it for different reasons.”

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