The Washington Post Editorial Board’s interviews with presidential candidates is something of a right of passage. It signifies that Washington D.C.’s premiere king making newspaper recognizes your candidacy as one that is inexorable. Today they published their interview with Pete Buttigieg.
The conversation was illuminating with Buttigieg fielding questions usually reserved for someone from the tech sector, answering questions about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and other social media companies and their responsibility to voters. The following is an excerpt on those topics.
Molly Roberts: There’s been in particular question of removing the shield that tech companies have that makes sure that they’re not liable for content posted by third parties or any old user. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Pete Buttigieg: I think it needs to be on the table. Again, I don’t think that there is a meat-cleaver approach that’s going to work here, because it does get into First Amendment issues. But you also see a lot of tech companies having it both ways, saying that, you know, this is protected speech and that, hey, we’re just a bulletin board, and at the same time monetizing what’s going on there. And if you’re drawing revenue from content directly or perhaps indirectly, that creates responsibilities.
Fred Hiatt: If I can follow up, on verifying the truth. Let’s say you have a candidate who says climate change is a hoax. Do you want Mark Zuckerberg saying they’re not allowed to do that on Facebook?
Pete Buttigieg: So there is a reason why they don’t want to be in charge of that, and there are cases where the government can’t be in charge of that, either. But we do recognize as a matter of law some extent to which lying can lead to legal consequences. We can always craft problematic hypotheticals. But remember how fake news got started? It was not disagreeable news. It was newspaper or, you know, online articles circulating saying, you know, “the pope endorsed Donald Trump,” flatly, demonstrably, uncontroversially false statements. We can least begin there and assign responsibility for that, knowing that there will always be challenging boundary cases.
Molly Roberts: And just to be clear, so that’s talking about disinformation and more probably that maybe it doesn’t spread in advertising. Do you think that technology companies should be policing that disinformation, even when it’s not monetized, which is a distinction I think you were drawing before?
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah, I think they still have a responsibility there, but it does get more complex the more you zoom out. And this can’t only be something that the tech companies do. They have responsibility. We also need to make sure we become harder targets. In the same way that now when my eye falls on a page of The Washington Post that has a full-page ad, even if it resembles newsprint, within a couple of seconds, my brain will have enough pattern recognition to realize it’s an ad. I’m not sure we have that same pattern recognition that we’ve developed in the same way when it comes to what we see online. And so we need to make sure that in addition to holding companies responsible, we make sure just as a matter of citizenship that we are better equipped to resist the interventions of trolls, bots and other forms of misinformation.
Molly Roberts: As far as what that looks like, you could also theoretically regulate that, have rules for exactly how a digital ad should be displayed, how small the text could be.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, and the appeal of that is that it moves in the direction of enforcing an expectation of transparency rather than enforcing a certain standard of what speech is true or false, or good or harmful. And so I think, again, looking at some of the examples that have come from responsible regulation of political advertising gives us a pretty good launching point for these questions.
Christine Emba, columnist: Have you had conversations with tech executives about this? What sort of conversations are you having? I know some candidates have a more antagonistic-seeming relationship, it seems. But I mean, you are in contact with Mark Zuckerberg, I think, already. Right?
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I mean, we knew the same people in college and I’ve known him socially. We don’t sit around talking about the questions we’re talking about now.
But I’ll say this. I have noticed in Silicon Valley that there’s a lot of, I think, concern among people who are coming to terms with what it is they’ve created. And maybe it’s less among the CEOs than it is among the kind of middle layer of folks, who built out some of these technologies with a sense of tech utopianism that was really kind of prevailing as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. And they’re now realizing the implications of what’s been created. And so we just have to do the right thing from a policy perspective. But we should also, I think, press those who are involved in industry to recognize what’s at stake and and try to get them on the right side.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., came to The Post on Friday to talk about why he is running for president and what he hopes to accomplish if elected. Here is the full transcript and audio recording of our conversation. — Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page editor