Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz on Monday sent a criminal referral to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, asking that the justice department investigate Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly lying to Congress.
Gaetz based his request for an investigation on information he said he learned from a reports by the right-wing group Project Veritas. According to Gaetz, the James O’Keefe-founded group learned that Facebook censors conservative-leaning content on its platform, despite Zuckerberg’s April 2018 testimony to the contrary.
During two days of testimony before Senate and House committees, Zuckerberg largely answered questions about the social media giant’s handling of users’ private data, hate speech and Russian election interference, the New York Times reported. His answers often revolved around some variation of, “My team will get back to you,” according to the Times report.
When questioned by some conservative lawmakers about allegations that Facebook stifles conservative content, however, Zuckerberg “categorically” denied the rumors, Gaetz wrote in his letter to Barr.
Here’s what you need to know:
Conservative Media Personalities & Lawmakers Have Long Accused Facebook, Google & Twitter of Censoring Conservatives & & Right-Wing Content on Their Platforms
Gaetz is one of several Congressional Republicans who have joined right-wing media for years in claiming that social media and big tech companies suppress conservative content online.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a hearing last year brought up “shadow banning.” The phrase that was popularized in recent years on conservative Twitter, but originated with online message boards as a method of keeping spammers and harassers from disrupting otherwise productive conversations, the Associated Press reported.
“Shadow banning, by its nature, has been reported to be a process where a particular speaker is silenced but that speaker doesn’t know it because they send out a tweet, they send out a post … and that speech goes into the ether,” Cruz said at the 2019 hearing.
Experts have denied that censorship of conservative content is a widespread or deliberate practice at social media companies, and Twitter leadership told Cruz as much at the April 2019 hearing, the Washington Post reported.
“The notion that we would silence any political perspective is antithetical to our commitment to free expression,” Carlos Monje, Jr., of Twitter, said at the hearing.
Still, Republican Sen. Mike Lee insisted that “we do have a bias issue here,” Reuters reported.
President Donald Trump has angrily tweeted about the issue, too.
“Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans,” Trump said. “Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.”
At the House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing in April 2018, Republicans pointed Zuckerberg to a then-recent situation in which pro-Trump personalities Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) claimed to have had their Facebook flagged for “unsafe” content, Time reported.
That situation was an “enforcement error” and not reflective of a political bias, Zuckerberg said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Gaetz Claims Zuckerberg Was Lying to Congress, Based on a Report from Project Veritas
In Gaetz’s letter to Attorney General Barr, he said he wanted Zuckerberg investigated for making “materially false” statements to Congress while under oath.
“I question Mr. Zuckerberg’s veracity and challenge his willingness to cooperate with our oversight authority, diverting Congressional resources during time-sensitive investigations and materially impeding our work,” Gaetz wrote. “Such misrepresentations are not only unfair — they are potentially illegal and fraudulent.”
Gaetz based his referral on reports from the right-wing group Project Veritas, which alleged that hidden-camera recordings showed Facebook content moderators expressing bias against pro-Trump voices and reveling in deleting pro-Trump content flagged by Facebook’s content moderation AI.
“Their report revealed that the overwhelming majority of content filtered by Facebook’s AI program was content in support of President Donald Trump, Republican candidates for office or conservatism in general,” Gaetz wrote. “This alone is already an indication of bias within the platform.”
Gaetz relayed some of the allegations of the Project Veritas reports, including undercover footage he said showed a Facebook content moderator waving by an image of a “knife slashing the throat” of Trump and the caption, “F*** Trump.”
Project Veritas has gone after a number of media outlets and government agencies, including NPR, Planned Parenthood and Youtube. In 2009, the activist group released surreptitiously recorded videos of organizers at the voter-registration and community organizing group ACORN, in which founder James O’Keefe and activist Hannah Giles walked into ACORN offices in several cities posing as a pimp and prostitute, seeking advice on how to keep their business operating under the radar, NPR reported.
Although the videos were eventually revealed to have been deceptively edited, their release and the ensuing controversy precipitated the eventual dissolving of ACORN in the United States, the New York Times reported.
Gaetz Announced That He Had Sent the Letter on Twitter & Right-Wing Twitter Applauded the Move
Gaetz took to Twitter on Monday to announce that he had sent the letter to Barr, also publishing a news release on his Congressional website.
“I’ve filed a criminal referral against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for making materially false statements to Congress while under oath,” Gaetz said.
O’Keefe tweeted a link to Gaetz’s letter along with the hashtag “#ExposeFacebook.” In a second Tweet, O’Keefe credited the letter to the work of “two brave insiders” who spoke with Project Veritas.
Zach McElroy, one of Project Veritas’ supposed whistleblowers, Zach McElroy, called it “great news.”
“I am willing to see this through and will gladly testify all I’ve seen at Facebook. The ball’s in [Barr’s] court now,” he said.
McElroy also has set up a GoFundMe site to help him “rebuild [his] life in the aftermath” of Project Veritas’ report.
Barr himself is set to testify on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee for a high-profile hearing, at which he’s expected to be grilled Russian election interference, the militarized federal response to widespread protests against police brutality and his intervention in federal cases in which Trump has a personal interest, the New York Times reported.
Heavy reached out to Facebook and Zuckerberg for comment, but had not heard back as of Monday evening.