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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sent a clear message to Washington yesterday in an interview with Axios' Mike Allen: Facebook will help investigators looking into Russian election meddling on the platform, but it isn't changing the core values and business plan that have powered the company's growth.

Why it matters: The government and users now need to decide if that is enough.

The details:

  • Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."
  • Facebook, she said, would have run an ad purchased by Rep. Marsha Blackburn that was blocked on Twitter because of anti-abortion language the platform called inflammatory. "When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for other people."
  • Asked about whether the Trump campaign's ad targeting overlapped with the targeting used by Russian pages, Sandberg dodged the question multiple times. Instead she offered a defense of the sprawling targeted ad operation that has made Facebook billions.

How it works: Facebook's business model is to grow as big as possible and sell ads against a mass audience that consumes its content. That's especially effective when combined with corporate support for broadly allowing all voices and perspectives on the platform. And it's lucrative: Facebook currently boasts over 2 billion monthly active users and brings in $34 billion dollars in revenue annually, most of which comes from advertising.

The problem: That model has drawn backlash from government officials and users alike, because it allows people to spread fake news and hoaxes on the platform intentionally. It also allows groups of all viewpoints to buy ads on the platform, something its rivals Twitter and Snapchat have resisted.

The bottom line: This approach puts many of the company's critics in direct conflict with the vision Sandberg laid out. Facebook has said it will take actions to better monitor the platforms' automated ads business by manually reviewing ads that are targeted using political and social behavioral attributes. But those types of ads only make up a tiny fraction of Facebook's entire business, and the company has given no indication that it would make more sweeping changes.

What's next: Users will either accept this mentality or grow frustrated with the platform's limited changes. Sandberg is betting they respond to Facebook and the viewpoints it shows them. She bragged that the platform connects people to their "weak ties," or people they aren't close to. "Twenty-three percent of your friends on Facebook have a stated ideology that's different than yours," Sandberg said.

In the coming weeks, Congress must also decide if Facebook's vision of inclusivity is a threat to democracy. Lawmakers who met with Sandberg said Thursday following the event that Facebook had to meet a balance between supporting free speech and removing unacceptable content — but their concerns might not lead to any regulation stronger than new digital political ad disclosure rules.

Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."

Go deeper

By the numbers: Leaving House

Expand chart
Data: House Press Gallery; Table: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) is the latest House lawmaker to announce he won't seek re-election next year, bringing the total number of Democratic retirements to 13, compared to nine Republicans.

Why it matters: The increasing number of Democratic retirements — put against the backdrop of President Biden's sagging approval ratings and uncertainty about redistricting — is adding to concerns the party may not be able to keep its slim majority in the House.

Ohio sues Biden admin over reversal of Trump-era abortion referral ban

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Photo: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration Monday over a Trump-era ban on abortion referrals that President Biden overturned earlier this month.

The big picture: The lawsuit aims to reinstate two measures included in the 2019 legislation that required federally funded family planning clinics to be "financially independent of abortion clinics," and refrain from referring patients for abortions.

Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily blocks abortion restrictions

A pro-choice activist demonstrates outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 4, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday temporarily blocked three abortion restrictions set to take effect on Nov. 1.

Why it matters: The laws would place new limits on medication-induced abortions and require doctors who perform abortions to attain board certification in obstetrics and gynecology.