Politicians from nine countries have assembled for the largest inquiry yet into digital misinformation but the Facebook CEO chose to send Richard Allan, the company's Vice-President of Policy Solutions, in his place.

The inquiry brought together politicians from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore and the UK.

The Chair of the inquiry, Damian Collins, had repeatedly insisted that Zuckerberg should attend and the inquiry members pointedly left a vacant seat alongside a nameplate for the Facebook CEO.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Vice Chair of a Canadian parliamentary committee on privacy and information, described Zuckerberg’s absence as “incredibly unfortunate” and indicative of a “failure to account for the loss of trust…across the globe with respect to Facebook.”

Facebook exec Richard Allan quizzed on fake news, election interference

Canadian Parliamentarian Charlie Angus set the tone by telling the inquiry: “Our democratic institutions…seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California.”

Allan faced robust questioning on how many apps Facebook had banned for malicious behaviour. Facebook has recently faced issues with one of the many apps it owns, Whatsapp, being used to disseminate fake news in South America.

He said he did not know of any occasions before the Cambridge Analytica privacy breach where Facebook had banned an app.

He conceded that Facebook had “damaged public trust” through some of its actions and agreed there needs to be a “regulatory framework” to oversee the social media giant.

Brazilian representative Alessandro Molon asked what steps Facebook was taking to prevent bad actors manipulating its algorithms to interfere with elections.

In response, Allan referred to a previous post by Zuckerberg which outlined how Facebook is trying to improve its algorithm so it stops rewarding sensationalist news content. He also said the social media platform is collaborating with third-party fact-checking bodies and suppressing content it identifies as fake news.

Parliamentarians also grilled the Facebook exec on video metrics

Angus charged Facebook with exerting an unhealthy dominance over the news cycle, an issue linked to its inflated video metrics.

For two years, it excluded people who watched a video for less than three seconds to inflate the average time spent watching videos to advertisers.

Angus said this amounted to massive corporate fraud. He suggested Facebook either be broken up or treated by regulators as a utility. “To allow you to gobble up all the competition is not good,” he told Allan.

The Facebook representative countered that the social media giant offered a valuable social utility. “I’m not sure people would be better off in doing without Facebook offering the services it’s spent 15 years perfecting how to offer,” he said.

In the lead-up to the inquiry, parliamentarians seized a cache of documents relating to Facebook from the founder of the controversial Six4Three app on the grounds that they were relevant to the inquiry.

These documents reportedly contain correspondence with Zuckerberg and other senior executives at Facebook. They are yet to be published or disclosed at the inquiry.

Header image credit: United States Mission Geneva