Monday Morning Moan - Zuckerberg's Three Wise Monkeys routine doesn't help the Fake News crisis that outlives Trump

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 29, 2021
Congress gave Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and two of his peers another light toasting last week, but the crisis of Fake News remains an ever-present threat to us all.

Fake News

 My daughters are five and three and they do not use our products.

An interesting comment about Life With The Zuckerbergs - sadly not a new 'lack-of-reality' show coming soon to a social media platform near you - from Mark Zuckerberg himself. Mind you, the fact that Mini Zuck and Mini Zuck 2 are being denied access to the family business may not last long as Daddy has plans to expand his paternal embrace to apps aimed at the under-13s, no age demographic apparently deemed off limits for Facebook colonisation. 

He reckons that what the world is screaming out for is Instagram for the under-teenies as he pitches: 

There is clearly a large number of people under the age of 13 who would want to use a service like Instagram. 

Then again there are a lot of young ‘uns who want to try alcohol; that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to let them - or indeed legal to do so. At present, the US Childhood Online Protection Act (COPA) means that users have to be over 13 to use Instagram. Damn it! That’s good money being left on the table there! 

Actually making money is not Zuckerberg’s motivation at all, he assures us. He’s in this for the good of us all (again!) as he argues: 

I think helping people stay connected with friends and learn about different content online is broadly positive.

OK, I’m convinced! Let's do it! 

But then he goes and spoils it by admitting: 

There are clearly issues that need to be thought through and worked out, including how parents can control the experience of kids, especially kids under the age of 13, and we haven't worked through all that yet. 

Oh. So, it’s a good idea, but he hasn’t worked out how to deal with all the obvious potential pitfalls and alarm bells ringing that any native of the planet Earth can see and hear clearly. Mind you, that’s not the end of the mixed messaging. Having said, the Zuckerberg minors don’t use his firm’s products, he adds that his five year old does in fact get to use Messenger. 

Zuckerberg saying contradictory things? That’s a new one on me…

Another light grilling

This latest set of flim-flam came as part of a lengthy, but light, grilling from US legislators late last week, a routine that Zuckerberg now has so well-rehearsed that he’s even stopped looking like a rabbit in the headlights, although he’s never managed to shake-off that mildly vexed expression of vague curiosity as to why he’s being questioned like this by lesser mortals. 

This time around that questioning came from members of the US Congress’ Energy and Commerce Committee and as well as Zuck, two other tech CEO regulars made up the line up - Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai - to hear the likes of Republication Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers declare: 

You have broken my trust…Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent.

While I'm all set to blame the parents when one of them is Mark Zuckerberg, the stated topic of the day wasn't kids use of the internet, but social media’s role in spreading misinformation, so-called Fake News, a tired phrase that sadly hasn't retired to the golf courses of Florida like its main proponent. 

The hearing came on the back of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol in Washington by Trump supporters, fired up by false statements about election theft from the man himself, his various offspring, opportunistic politicos and lawyers in hot pursuit of enormous daily stipends for issuing ever more outrageous claims from landscaping company parking lots or via Fox News, whichever was most convenient at the time. 

As ever these days, the party political divide was obvious in the questioning as Republican members said conservatives were blocked on social platforms and mourned for Dr Seuss, while the Democrats said that hate speech and misinformation spread by social media had been the modus operandi of the Right in recent years and solemnly intoned that 'something must be done' without specifying what that something is to be. 

Of particular note was the moment Democrat Mike Doyle asked the Three Wise Monkeys point blank if any of them would accept any level of responsibility for the role of their platforms in the events at the Capitol, demanding only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as a response. 

Only Dorsey said yes. 

Let that sink in. 

Only one of the CEOs of the three main social media platforms was ready to put his hand up, even a little bit. 

Not as others see things

For his part, Zuckerberg declined to give a straight answer to the straight question. 

But then Zuckerberg doesn’t see the world as others do. Another Democratic committee member, Jan Schakowsky, asked him:

Do you think that when you take money to run advertisements that promote disinformation, that you are exempt from liability? Yes or no?

A po-faced Zuckerberg piously insisted: 

We don’t allow misinformation in our ads, and any ads that’s been fact checked as false we do not allow to run as an ad.

This reply, already with its built-in caveat, was additionally prefaced with a cautionary:  

I don’t know the legal answer to that.

But the statement was made - Facebook doesn't allow the spreading of misinformation. End of story? Well, try typing ‘stop the steal’ and see what happens. (Even Trump’s 'sometime-maybe-never' lawyer Sydney Powell’s own legal reps are now using the marvellous defense for their under-attack client that no reasonable person could ever have believed her when she repeatedly made those claims to anyone who’d listen. That doesn't alter the fact that the claims were made and you don’t need to look far to find them echoed in the online ether).

But whatever passes for Zuckerberg’s conscience appears clear as another committee member, Democrat Frank Pallone, noted: 

You definitely give the impression that you don’t think that you’re actively in any way promoting this misinformation and extremism. 

And Pallone went one step further:

You’re not passive bystanders – you are not non-profits or religious organizations that are trying to do a good job for humanity; you’re making money...when you spread misinformation, when extremists are actively promoted and amplified, you do it because you make more money.

Zuck doesn’t recognize this interpretation - and he certainly isn’t about to Like it. It’s not his fault, he ‘argues’, reaching for his own version of ‘it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people etc etc’. In this iteration, Facebook et al are just providing  open platforms for freedom of expression; it’s not his fault if that gets abused by….well, a very long list it seems, including politicians, traditional news media and high-profile individuals in society, up to and including Trump:

The division we see today is the result of a political and media environment that drives people apart…Some people say that the problem is that social networks are polarising us, but that's not at all clear from the evidence or research. Polarisation was rising in America long before social networks were even invented.

Now clearly he has a point here, up to a point. US cable news channels were pumping out misinformation masquerading as news long before social media platforms came along to amplify the rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean Facebook gets to avoid its share of the culpability in aggravating an already febrile political climate. 

But Zuck isn’t having it, insisting that Facebook in fact helped to ensure the US Presidential Election wasn’t undermined or interfered with and that the events that climaxed with the storming of the totemic heart of US democracy aren’t down to him and his team, but to “the people who spread that content, including the President, but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organise”: 

We did our part to secure the integrity of our election. Then President Trump gave a speech… calling on people to fight. I believe that the former President should be responsible for his words and the people who broke the law should be responsible for their actions.

What next? 

With such a state of denial, the question remains what a civilised, democratic society can do about (a) Facebook and (b) the wider question of liability on social platforms?

For his part, Zuckerberg repeated his trademark ‘regulate me!’ plea to legislators and proposed some reform to Section 230 of the US Communication Decency Act, suggesting that liability protections therein should be made conditional on a platform's ability to implement “best practices” to combat misinformation. 

In other words, platform providers would need to be able to demonstrate they have systems in place for identifying and removing unlawful content. Show us you tried, in other words. That’s a spin that Facebook has been pitching hard of late, citing its sophisticated AI tech as having found and removed 95% of hate speech on the platform. Facebook can certainly be confident of making a strong case that it has tried to put the right systems in place. But of course, while its tech arsenal might be up to meeting such a requirement, the resources at the disposal of smaller outfits or newcomers might not and be at an immediate competitive disadvantage. Oh well, what a pity, never mind. If Facebook tightening its grip on market dominance is the price we have to pay for stemming the tide of misinformation, that's a burden Zuckerberg will have to carry for the good of us all. 

But we do have to mind. The day after this latest merry-go-round, Senator Mark Warner wrote to Zuckerberg about the alarming amount of anti-vaxx misinformation and general barking-made COVID conspiracies to be found on Facebook platforms, noting that top-ranked search results for ‘COVID vaccine’ on Instagram lead to anti-vaccine accounts.

Facebook committed as far back as last year to ban false claims about COVID and anti-vaxx ads and content.

Warner told Zuckerberg: 

The events of January 6th prove that there are real-world consequences when harmful misinformation is allowed to run rampant online, and I am concerned that Instagram – a platform which has generally escaped the level of scrutiny directed at Facebook, itself – is similarly enabling the spread of harmful misinformation that could hinder COVID-19 mitigation efforts and, ultimately, result in lives lost. 

And this is the point at which Zuckerberg’s Three Wise Monkeys routine becomes a threat to us all and where Congress, and other legislators around the world, have to get to grips with enforcing a reasonable social media regime. Who else is going to do it? 

Actually as I typed those words I recalled that last week it was announced that Prince Harry is teaming up with a US non-profit for a six-month study exploring misinformation. You know, misinformation like telling a worldwide TV audience that you got married three days before you actually did, that sort of thing. The lost Prince tells us: 

It's my belief that this is a humanitarian issue…and look forward to working on a solution-oriented approach to the information disorder crisis.

Or we could just ditch the happy-clappy soundbites and legislate to make Zuckerberg and Co face up to their responsibilities?