Two days after the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a mistake that now consumes his company: He dismissed the idea that misinformation on the social network could have influenced election results as "pretty crazy idea." After months of escalating crisis, he finally walked it back Wednesday, describing his words as wrongly "dismissive."
But BuzzFeed News has learned that while Zuckerberg's comment may have been a blunder, it wasn't an accident. The comment was, instead, a scripted talking point, aimed at undercutting further criticism.
Just a day after the election, Elliot Schrage, Facebook's high-powered vice president of communications and public policy, used the phrase at a gathering of communications pros, hosted by a prominent venture capital firm and a well-known Silicon Valley communications shop.
“It was not coincidental that there was such similarity in the response.”
“Elliot essentially foreshadowed Mark’s comments,” a person who attended the event told BuzzFeed News. “It was not coincidental that there was such similarity in the response.”
The event, hosted by Accel Ventures and the Pramana Collective at Bluxome Street Winery in San Francisco’s SoMA district, featured a Q&A with Schrage and former Obama White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. Responding to a question about fake news, Schrage answered with a beta version of the "pretty crazy idea" remark that Zuckerberg would later make. “It was a tonality of does anyone here think that we have the responsibility to police this?” the attendee said. “They were probably in the process of coming up with messaging around it.”
Sources say the remark received some polite pushback from the mostly friendly crowd. “It wasn’t people standing up and shouting at him. It was more, like, ‘Really?’” another attendee said. “That reaction was characteristic of the point of view of the company,” the attendee added.
Reached for comment, Schrage declined to speak with BuzzFeed News. He referred BuzzFeed News to a Facebook spokesperson who provided the following statement. "Elliot's point was that it was impossible to draw conclusions so quickly after the election given there were so many possible causes for the outcome."
The fact that the "dismissive" line was seemingly tested by a senior Facebook communications official before Zuckerberg uttered it spotlights the breadth of Facebook's early failure to comprehend the severity of 2016 election meddling that occurred on its platform. Only now is the social giant coming to terms with its role in Russia’s interference of last year’s presidential election. Earlier this month, Facebook said a Russian government-linked entity spent $100,000 on ads meant to influence the election.
Revisiting the comment on Wednesday, Zuckerberg was uncharacteristically apologetic. “After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea,” he said. “Calling that crazy was dismissive, and I regret it.”
Zuckerberg’s comment has been held up as a symbol of the disconnect between Facebook's own perception of its platform and its real-world consequences, which now include the proliferation of fake election news, Russian meddling in the last US presidential election, the deletion of tens of thousands of fake accounts ahead of Germany’s Federal election and a contested French presidential election, Twitter attacks from President Donald Trump, and growing scrutiny from US lawmakers.
On Wednesday, the Senate intelligence committee asked Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, to testify publicly about Kremlin attempts to use social media to sway last year’s presidential election. Facebook has not yet said whether it will attend.