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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg given empty chair at ‘fake news’ panel

International panel of politicians leaves open space for missing Facebook founder

Mark Zuckerberg failed to turn up to a hearing before international MPs in London. Reuters
Mark Zuckerberg failed to turn up to a hearing before international MPs in London. Reuters

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg snubbed a meeting of parliamentarians on Tuesday who responded with a fusillade of angry questions for his replacement about the company’s failures to tackle hate speech, data misuse and election tampering.

Lawmakers from nine countries left the empty chair and nameplate for the absent chief executive of Facebook for the session in the UK parliament and released a series of pointed Twitter messages aimed at Mr Zuckerberg.

“Nine countries, 24 official representatives, 447 people represented,” said one message from the select committee probing Facebook’s role in a fake news and global disinformation investigation. “One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?”

MPs from Argentina, Canada, France, Singapore, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil, Latvia and the UK linked up to form an “international grand committee” to interview his replacement, Richard Allan.

The MPs repeatedly criticised Mr Zuckerberg’s no-show in a hostile session that included questions over when it responded to emerging threats of election interference and its policies on tackling hate speech.

“The sense of corporate social responsibility, particularly in light of the immense power and profit of Facebook, has been as empty as the chair beside you,” Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Canadian MP, told Mr Allan.

The committee of global lawmakers came together after the refusal of Mr Zuckerberg to appear before MPs in the UK and Canada.

Mr Allan, a former MP who now sits in the UK’s upper chamber as well as being Facebook's vice-president for policy solutions, apologised for Mr Zuckerberg’s failure to appear. He accepted the impression was “not great” that Mr Zuckerberg had declined to appear before parliament in the United Kingdom.

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The hearing followed revelations at the weekend that the committee employed little-used legal powers to seize documents thought to contain emails from senior company officials including Mr Zuckerberg in an attempt to shed light on how it treated potential data breaches.

The chairman of the committee, Damian Collins, said the documents were seized because of the failure of Facebook to answer questions about the company’s role in Russian tampering in the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum in the UK.

The company has called for the return of the documents, which was secured from an app developer involved in a legal dispute with Facebook. Mr Collins said the committee would not publish the documents but cited the documents as saying that an engineer told Facebook in October 2014 that Russian addresses were seeking “three billion data points” a day.

Facebook has previously said that it was unaware of this sort of Russian activity on the social network until after the 2016 US presidential election. Mr Allan said he would investigate what actions Facebook took.

Facebook was also questioned on its record on taking down hate speech and racist material. The committee heard that the company failed to take down a post in Sri Lanka calling for the murder of Muslims.

Singapore politician Edwin Tong said the official response from Facebook was that no policy had been broken. “We make mistakes, our job is to reduce the number of mistakes,” said Mr Allan.

The meeting is just the latest public relations problem for the company that has seen nearly $240 billion erased from its value since its peak in July.

Facebook has some two billion users around the world but faces regulation in a number of countries following a series of scandals over the use of personal information.

The company has also been criticised after the company used a public relations firm to promote negative stories about its rivals and linked the financier George Soros to an anti-Facebook group.

The group said the move was anti-Semitic and had followed other attacks by right-wing regimes on charities funded by Mr Soros.