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Warren-Zuckerberg feud intensifies ahead of 2020

Elizabeth Warren and Mark zuckerberg
Photos: Getty Images

The battle between Facebook’s chief executive and one of the top 2020 Democratic candidates for president is escalating as the election inches closer.

Our thought bubble: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Zuckerberg are convenient political targets for one another. Warren can paint Facebook as an example of capitalism gone wild, while Facebook can point to Warren as a misguided regulator who wants to break up its business because she doesn't understand how it works.

Driving the news: On Saturday, Warren tweeted that her campaign created a Facebook ad with false claims — namely, that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Trump for re-election — and submitted it to Facebook "to see if it’d be approved." It was.

  • Warren argued that the acceptance of her ad was an example of how Facebook "chooses profit" over "protecting democracy."
  • Facebook promptly hit back at Warren, tweeting from its Newsroom account that broadcast stations, required by law under the FCC, have aired the same false ads.
Elizabeth Warren Facebook ad
Screenshot of Warren's Facebook ad

Facebook has been under pressure over the past week from activists that argue it shouldn't allow politicians to be exempt from its fact-checking policy for ads.

  • That pressure rose partly in response to reports that Trump was pouring big bucks into Facebook about impeachment ads that opponents say are based on false claims.

Be smart: The political ad saga has ignited backlash from Democrats who argue that Facebook is unfairly helping conservatives by allowing them to run false claims in their advertising.

  • The irony: While conservatives in Congress have alleged all year that Facebook is silencing their voices, Democrats now argue that Facebook is not doing enough to censor them.

The big picture: The false ad spat was just the latest tit for tat in a growing battle between Zuckerberg and Warren, which has mostly been escalated by Warren.

  • The feud took off at the start of the month when The Verge obtained leaked audio of Zuckerberg calling a Warren presidency an "existential" threat to Facebook and lamenting a potential future legal challenge to prevent her from breaking the company up.
  • Days later, Warren suggested, without evidence, that Facebook changed its ad rules to exempt politicians from being fact-checked in ads only after Zuckerberg met at the White House with Trump. Facebook denies that it made changes to its policy.
  • A Facebook company spokesperson told Axios in a statement: "Facebook believes political speech should be protected. If Sen. Warren wants to say things she knows to be untrue, we believe Facebook should not be in the position of censoring that speech."

The bottom line: Even though political ads reportedly make up less than 5% of Facebook's revenues, the company has chosen to engage in political advertising because it falls in line with its mission of empowering free speech.

  • Case in point: When Joe Biden asked Facebook to no longer accept Trump ads with false claims, the company responded that its approach "is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is."

Go deeper: Listen to Axios' Dan Primack's recent Pro Rata podcast episode with The Verge's Casey Newton: Mark Zuckerberg vs. Elizabeth Warren