From toast of town to toxic: Facebook CEO on outs with Dems

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mark Zuckerberg's social network in Washington is shrinking.

Bipartisan hostility against Facebook has been building for months, fueled by a series of privacy scandals, the site's role in Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and accusations that Facebook crushes competitors.

Now, with the 2020 elections approaching, Democrats especially are homing in on the conduct of the social media giant and its refusal to fact-check political ads and remove false ones.

"When you're the No. 1 monopoly, people are going to come after you," says John Feehery, a veteran Republican communications strategist. The challenge for Democrats, as he sees it: "They're facing a base that is very angry and restive. So they have to be much more aggressive in taking on corporations."

Zuckerberg enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Obama administration. But in the face of growing public outrage, the co-founder of the upstart born under the motto "Move fast and break things" is learning the art of smoothing over and piecing back together.

His new strategy: a personal blitz featuring serial private meetings in Washington with key lawmakers of both parties and President Donald Trump; small, off-the-record dinners at his California home with conservative journalists and opinion makers; and the occasional public address or TV interview.

He's become lobbyist-in-chief for a tech giant that has about 60 people officially playing that role. The company spent an estimated $12.6 million on federal influencing last year.

The political ad issue hits close to home for Democrats. Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google, refused in September to remove a misleading video ad from Trump's reelection campaign that targeted top-tier Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another top Democratic contender, chose to hit back by running her own ad and making it personal by falsely claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump for 2020.

Warren, who has called for breaking up Facebook and other tech giants, acknowledged the ad's deliberate falsity to make her point.

Then came Zuckerberg's speech last month at Georgetown University in which he promoted free expression as the foundation for Facebook's refusal to take down content it deems newsworthy, even if the material violates company standards. The next week, during prickly questioning by Democratic lawmakers at a televised House hearing, Zuckerberg dug in on not fact-checking politicians' speech and the handling of hate speech and potential incitements to violence.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., waits to begin a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Lawmakers will grill Zuckerberg on issues ranging from the troves of data vacuumed up by app developers and political consultant Cambridge Analytica to Russian operatives' use of the social network to spread misinformation and discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
The witness table is seen before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appearance at a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens while testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes a drink while testifying before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes a drink while testifying before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down following a break to resume testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down following a break to resume testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) listens as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) listens as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) (L) looks on as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds up the privacy agreement of Facebook as its CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responds to a question about his own personal information becoming public as he testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (2 L) arrives at a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 9: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for his meeting with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in the Hart Senate Office Building on Monday, April 9, 2018. Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill to testify before the House and Senate this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Mark Zuckerberg and Andrea Besmehn, Mark Zuckerbergs executive assistant at Facebook depart US Senator Bill Nelson's, D-Florida, office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2018. Embattled Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has placed the blame for security lapses at the world's largest social network squarely on himself as he girded Monday for appearances this week before angry lawmakers.In prepared remarks released by a congressional panel, Zuckerberg admitted he was too idealistic and failed to grasp how the platform -- used by two billion people -- could be abused and manipulated. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by JIM WATSON has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Andrea Besmehn (R), Mark Zuckerbergs executive assistant at Facebook] instead of [Priscilla Chan]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (3rd L) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., exits after a meeting with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, not pictured, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 9, 2018. Zuckerberg, in prepared testimony for the U.S. House of Representatives, said all of Facebook's problems are his mistake. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) after meeting with Feinstein on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is meeting with individual senators in advance of tomorrow's scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committeees. Zuckerberg is under pressure to explain why tens of millions of Facebook user's private information was shared with Cambridge Analytica. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) after meeting with Feinstein on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is meeting with individual senators in advance of tomorrow's scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committeees. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (3rd L) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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"This really is not about money," Zuckerberg insisted. "It is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying." Facebook says political advertising accounts for less than half of 1% of its total revenue.

In the lambasting from Democrats, Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, focused on Facebook's track record on civil rights and diversity. She told Zuckerberg that he had "ruined the lives of many people, discriminated against them."

As part of a legal settlement with civil rights groups, Facebook changed its ad-targeting systems this year to prevent discrimination in housing, credit and employment ads. It previously had allowed such ads to be targeted to people based on age, sex or race, which is illegal.

At some points, friendlier Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee asked Zuckerberg how he was holding up through the six-hour hearing. "I'm doing OK," replied the 35-year-old co-founder, chairman and CEO. He's one of the world's richest individuals, with a net worth currently estimated at $71 billion.

Summing up, Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who leads the committee, told Zuckerberg, "You have opened up a discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up."

A mandated breakup would be the worst-case scenario for Facebook and the other big tech companies. Facebook says splitting up large tech corporations would make the election system more vulnerable to interference because the companies wouldn't be able to work together to prevent it.

For Zuckerberg and the Democrats, "it may be a nasty divorce," said James Thurber, a professor of government at American University who founded its Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "He clearly has taken a stand that's really quite unpopular."

Thurber called Zuckerberg's backstage celebrity approach to lobbying efforts "very dangerous." ''You've got to be very careful about that, if you think you can do it yourself," he said.

Rep. David Cicilline, a senior House Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee's investigation into the market dominance of big tech companies, is working on legislation that may target the profits made by Facebook from political ads it knows are false. The measure likely would also apply to social media rivals Twitter and Google.

On Thursday, Twitter made the unexpected announcement that it will ban all political advertising from its service.

"This is a good first step," Cicilline tweeted. "Your move, Google/Facebook."

Zuckerberg's quick riposte, during Facebook's quarterly conference call on earnings , was to reaffirm the company's commitment to the value of free speech, including for politicians.

It's a sharp reversal of fortune for Facebook from the days of the Obama administration, when the company was hailed as an exemplar of innovation and an engine of economic growth. Campaign money flowed to the Democrats from big tech companies.

At an employees' town hall at Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters in April 2011, President Barack Obama said: "My name is Barack Obama and I'm the guy that got Mark to wear a jacket and tie."

As they removed jackets and ties in unison and rolled up their shirt sleeves, Obama enthused, "Being here at Facebook is so exciting for me. You guys are at the cutting edge of what's happening."

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