Mark Zuckerberg has been on a massive publicity tour, but he doesn’t seem to be winning any hearts or minds.
Let’s take the recent announcement that Facebook would partner with news publishers. One might assume this would be popular with the press, but the inclusion of the right-wing website Breitbart.com raised media observers’ eyebrows.
Adam Mosseri, who currently heads Instagram, addressed the criticism on Twitter, asking if we “really want platform as big as Facebook embracing a political ideology?”
Once upon a time, I would’ve been cheering Facebook’s decision to include a conservative outlet among its list of news publishers. But that was before Steve Bannon took over and declared Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right.”
Since then, Breitbart has largely embraced the fever swamps on the right, while undermining mainstream conservatism, and elevating Donald Trump to the White House. This makes me question both the reflexive temptation to designate “inclusion” as an unalloyed “good,” as well as Zuckerberg’s judgment, in general.
“Promoting the political outfit which championed the 'alt-right' *is* embracing a political ideology, Adam,” Daily Beast Editor in Chief Noah Shachtman replied to Mosseri.
The point here isn’t that I have changed, but rather, that the circumstances have shifted dramatically. And, sadly, this isn’t the only example of how Zuckerberg and Trump have caused me to rethink some of my previous (and fundamental) assumptions.
This revelation hit me the other day when Zuckerberg delivered a speech to Georgetown University that might once have been universally heralded as espousing the liberal values of freedom of speech. Yet I found myself left feeling uneasy about it.
If you missed Zuck’s talk, it was full of soaring rhetoric that might once have made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. “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,” Zuckerberg said. “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.”
Free expression? Who can be against that??
Like any good tech utopian, Zuckerberg praised the internet’s ability to empower people who previously didn’t have a voice, even as he acknowledged its ability to incite misinformation (to combat this, Zuck said, “we focus on making sure complete hoaxes don’t go viral”).
But the real revelation was what came next: an admission that Facebook would not police overt lies being spread by political candidates. “We don’t fact-check political ads,” he said. “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.”
The old me would have applauded this common-sense policy. After all, as Mosseri might have asked, do we “really want platform as big as Facebook” deciding which ads to censor? Especially if it involves an ad paid for by a legitimate political campaign that includes a disclaimer?
If you (like me) worry about liberal bias, the notion of giving a technological monopoly even more power to decide what voters are allowed to hear seems like a bad idea. Not to sound conspiratorial, but one could certainly imagine a scenario where a conservative candidate might be denied the right to run an advertisement just because someone in Palo Alto or Seattle disagrees with his worldview.
But now, there’s a bigger problem than that. It is entirely possible that, in 2020, Donald Trump will run blatantly dishonest, if highly effective and precisely targeted, ads on Facebook. What is more, it is entirely possible that (a) the public won’t realize this, or that (b) the backlash won’t provide any meaningful disincentive.
As much as it goes against everything I have advocated in the past about political speech, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong policy. Facebook is ducking responsibility. And the consequences could be dire.
An admission: By concluding that we must curtail our absolutist beliefs about political speech, I realize that I am tacitly conceding that Trump has succeeded in changing me—which means that (assuming I’m not alone) he is succeeding in his goal of shifting democratic norms.
Now, it is generally a bad idea to reverse engineer your principles based on one hypothetical outlier. But consider the likelihood that this will happen and the stakes involved: It is well within the realm of possibility that this could be the difference between whoever we elect, or re-elect, to be our president.
While we must fight to defend the right to free speech, we must also protect the sanctity of elections. This means we must be on guard against people like Donald Trump, who might tap companies like Facebook to spread their lies and propaganda.
Free speech might be a fundamental right, but the Constitution is not a suicide pact. I never imagined we would have a Mark Zuckerberg or a Facebook—and I sure as heck never imagined we would have a president like Donald Trump. They are the ones who are stress-testing free expression in America. And I’m not sure how much more we can bear.