Zuckerberg has a dream that's a nightmare - Facebook's 'defender of free speech' spin escalates

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 18, 2019
Mark Zuckerberg - defender of freedom of speech or tech CEO ignoring the dangers inherent in abuse of his platform?

Mark Zuckerberg

He’s got a nerve, I’ll give you that. With Facebook confirming that it’s officially OK for politicians to lie on its platform with indemnity, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on his hind legs positioning the firm as a champion of free speech - and even drawing comparisons with the likes of Martin Luther King.

But where Doctor King had a dream, what Zuckerberg is pitching is a nightmare.

Delivering an address at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg told his audience that he’s dedicated his life to a purpose:

I’ve focused on building services to do two things: give people voice, and bring people together. These two simple ideas — voice and inclusion — go hand in hand.

But not everyone is enlightened enough to see this, he complains:

Some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together. More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice. I think that’s dangerous.

He goes on:

In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression. We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.

We saw this when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was unconstitutionally jailed for protesting peacefully. We saw this in the efforts to shut down campus protests against the Vietnam War. We saw this way back when America was deeply polarized about its role in World War I, and the Supreme Court ruled that socialist leader Eugene Debs could be imprisoned for making an anti-war speech.

History repeats itself, he argues:

Today, we are in another time of social tension. We face real issues that will take a long time to work through — massive economic transitions from globalization and technology, fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and polarized reactions to greater migration. Many of our issues flow from these changes.

In the face of these tensions, once again a popular impulse is to pull back from free expression. We’re at another cross-roads. We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.


After all this self-serving piety comes the ‘it’s just too hard to deal with this crap’ bit:

A strict First Amendment standard might require us to allow terrorist propaganda, bullying young people and more that almost everyone agrees we should stop — and I certainly do — as well as content like pornography that would make people uncomfortable using our platforms. So once we’re taking this content down, the question is: where do you draw the line?

That’s a valid question, but not one that Zuckerberg has a satisfactory answer for. Instead, it’s all about Facebook trying to excuse itself:

We’ve found a different strategy works best: focusing on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself. Much of the content the Russian accounts [in the 2016 US Election] shared was distasteful, but would have been considered permissible political discourse if it were shared by Americans — the real issue was that it was posted by fake accounts coordinating together and pretending to be someone else.

He adds:

While I worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.

Maybe not. But it’s perfectly OK to post things that politicians or political figures say that you know aren’t true apparently:

Political advertising is more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else — we keep all political and issue ads in an archive so everyone can scrutinize them, and no TV or print does that. We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards. I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.

Zuckerberg claims that he’s actually considered just pulling all political ads:

From a business perspective, the controversy certainly isn’t worth the small part of our business they make up. But political ads are an important part of voice — especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.

Even if we wanted to ban political ads, it’s not clear where we’d draw the line. There are many more ads about issues than there are directly about elections. Would we ban all ads about healthcare or immigration or women’s empowerment? If we banned candidates’ ads but not these, would that really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except the candidates themselves? There are issues any way you cut this, and when it’s not absolutely clear what to do, I believe we should err on the side of greater expression.

But with the US Election campaign now well underway, Zuckerberg still fails to square the circle on the green light he’s given to politicians to publish lies that ‘ordinary’ Facebook users would be held to account over. Instead he resorts to blandishments and visions of a kind that aspiring politicians would embrace:

As long as our governments respect people’s right to express themselves, as long as our platforms live up to their responsibilities to support expression and prevent harm, and as long as we all commit to being open and making space for more perspectives, I think we’ll make progress. It’ll take time, but we’ll work through this moment. We overcame deep polarization after World War I, and intense political violence in the 1960s. Progress isn’t linear. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back.

My take

If he has a dream, he should run for office. He’s got the perfect platform to lie through his teeth should he so choose.

In the meantime, check this out from Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King:



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