Zuckerberg Doubles Down on Not Banning Steve Bannon in Senate Hearing

Nearly two years after Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg claimed in testimony to federal lawmakers that far-right broadcaster and Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s statements and activities did not warrant being banned from the platform, Bannon was indicted on charges of fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering connected to Facebook pages he ran with his accused co-conspirator.

Zuckerberg was pressed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) during a remote hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17 2020 that also included his counterpart at Twitter, Jack Dorsey.

Blumenthal, a Democrat, referred back to a remark Bannon made in a video posted twelve days earlier, when the former White House advisor attacked both Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“I’d put the heads on pikes,” Bannon said. “I’d put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats. You either get with the program or you are gone.”

While that individual video was removed from Facebook (as well as YouTube), Bannon’s account itself was not. By comparison, Twitter removed his account from that platform.

During the hearing Blumenthal asked Zuckerberg, “How many times is Steve Bannon allowed to call for the murder of government officials before Facebook suspends his account?”

“The content in question did violate our policies and we took it down,” Zuckerberg replied. “Having a content violation does not automatically mean your account gets taken down. The number of strikes varies depending on the type of offense. If people are posting terrorist content or child exploitation content then the first time they do it, we will take down their account. For other things, it’s multiple [offenses].”

When the senator asked Zuckerberg if he would commit to removing Bannon’s account he answered, “That’s not what our policies suggest that we should do in this case.”

Journalist Aaron Ruper captured the exchange on video and posted it to Twitter:

Zuckerberg’s response was in line with his statement to company employees following the initial broadcast; as Reuters reported, Zuckerberg refused to take action against Bannon even after the site removed a network of pages linked to him that had amassed more than 2.4 million followers while pushing disinformation related to the 2020 elections.

“We have specific rules around how many times you need to violate certain policies before we will deactivate your account completely,” Zuckerberg said in an all-staff meeting on November 5 2020. “While the offenses here, I think, came close to crossing that line, they clearly did not cross the line.”

Prior to his stint at the White House, Bannon was the executive chairman for the right-wing blog Breitbart, which was included in Facebook’s “News” service in October 2019 despite reportedly becoming an online hub for white nationalist content.

BuzzFeed reported in September 2017 that in August 2016, Bannon was interested in gaining influence at Facebook after being contacted by an operative for the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, who received job listings for the site and called it a chance to “flood the zone” with candidates who would report back to him.

The operative highlighted one listing for a public policy manager position; Bannon reportedly instructed a staffer to “get on this.” However, the position was ultimately filled by an official working in the National Security Council during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Bannon was reportedly introduced to the outgoing president by billionaire mogul Robert Mercer, whose family most recently helped finance a separate right-wing platform, Parler. Mercer also founded Cambridge Analytica, where Bannon worked as a vice president. That company gained international notoriety after it was revealed that it had gathered the personal data of around 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent, as a 2018 Observer story detailed:

Damian Collins, chair of the parliamentary committee investigating disinformation and fake news, said the emails raised fresh questions about both the financing of the Brexit campaign and its use of data.

The emails were submitted to the committee by Emma Briant, an academic at Essex University, who was given them by an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, Brittany Kaiser.

Briant believes the emails suggest Bannon, who over the summer unveiled a Brussels-based foundation to help the spread of rightwing populism in Europe, viewed Britain as a “key entry point” to influence European politics. Her evidence includes a chain of emails between Banks and employees of Cambridge Analytica, which was funded by US hedge-fund billionaire, Robert Mercer.

Collins said: “The emails suggest that the role of Bannon and Mercer is far deeper and more complex than we realised. There’s a big question about whether Mercer’s money was used in the Brexit campaign and it absolutely underscores why Britain needs a proper Mueller-style investigation.

“There are direct links between the political movements behind Brexit and Trump. We’ve got to recognise the bigger picture here. This is being co-ordinated across national borders by very wealthy people in a way we really haven’t seen before,” he added.

Zuckerberg has claimed, falsely, in the past that he heard about the company’s practices when it “became public … around March 2018.” But in reality, it was first reported in December 2015.

In July 2019, Facebook agreed to pay a $5 billion fine for not protecting its user data. We contacted Facebook seeking comment, but we never heard back.

In September 2022, Bannon was indicted and charged with conspiracy, money laundering, and “scheming to defraud” in connection to an online fundraising campaign ostensibly enabling the construction of a “border wall” between Mexico and the United States, showing a clear connection between his business interests and the disinformation he regularly pushes:

Avaaz said that it alerted Facebook to the pages on [January 10 2020]. By that time, in aggregate, Avaaz says the top seven pages — Brian Kolfage, Conservative Values, The Undefeated, We Build the Wall Inc, Citizens of the American Republic, American Joe, and Trump at War — had collectively gained over 2.45 million followers. In some cases, Bannon and Brian Kolfage, co-conspirator in the “We Build the Wall, Inc.” fundraiser/alleged scam, were co-admins.

Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran told Gizmodo that its team identified the Bannon ring by running an “influencer analysis,” keeping tabs on frequent guests on Bannon’s podcasts and pages affiliated with Bannon’s former “We Build the Wall” grift.

As the New York Times reported, Bannon is accused of directing more than $100,000 in donations to collaborator and fellow disinformation purveyor Brian Kolfage. Bannon had faced federal charges in connection with the fundraiser; however, Trump pardoned him in January 2021, just before leaving office after losing the presidency to Joe Biden.

Update 9/9/2022, 12:57 p.m. PST: Updated throughout to reflect Steve Bannon’s indictment in New York in September 2022. — ag