All week, we’ve been talking
here about a central debate in our reckoning over big tech platforms and their power: what should stay up on the internet, and what should come down. The discussion has been fueled by two national conversations: one, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, about whether Facebook ought to exempt political ads from fact-checking. And the other, about how far the limits of free speech extend in a world where China is moving aggressively to restrict American companies from hosting speech supportive of democratic protesters in Hong Kong.
The speech began with a major tactical and factual error, in which Zuckerberg attempted to awkwardly retcon
the founding of Facebook into a story about giving students a voice during the Iraq war. (“I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently.”) All previous reporting on the subject suggests that the truth was much, much hornier
, and the fact that Zuckerberg’s speech began so disingenuously caused lots of the folks I read to tune out the rest.
But I wanted to see how Zuckerberg would tackle the two big speech debates of the moment: lying in ads, and China.
On the former subject, Zuckerberg made his case for Facebook staying out of it:
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. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.
Zuckerberg also made his case for Facebook’s pro-speech bias as a necessary counterweight to the advance of Chinese soft power around the world. He said:
China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese.
We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.
Is that the internet we want?
On the whole, Zuckerberg tried to chart a middle course between his two loudest, angriest constituencies: the voices, mostly on the left, pushing for him to take down much more content than Facebook currently does; and the voices, mostly on the right, that complain Facebook is an engine for censorship that actively suppresses their views. It’s a position that, I think, reflects Zuckerberg’s actual beliefs — and it’s also the only tenable position for someone who is trying to serve the largest number of customers, no matter their political views.
By that standard, I thought, the speech was fine. But in the view of Facebook it presented to the world, there were a few important things it left out.
One, Zuckerberg presents Facebook’s platform as a neutral conduit for the dissemination of speech. But it’s not. We know that historically it has tended to favor the angry and the outrageous over the level-headed and inspiring. We know that the distribution of various formats for speech, such as live video or links to third-party publishers, will rise and fall sharply — and with no warning — depending on Facebook’s business needs. Zuckerberg’s talk focuses exclusively on the right of speech, when the far more consequential question is the right of reach. What spreads, and by what means, and to what effect? These are all questions Facebook avoided today.
Two, Zuckerberg presents Facebook specifically and social media more generally as a leveling force in democracies. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world,” he said. “A Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.” And that’s true — social networks really did help to catalyze any number of vital social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
But as Jen Schradie wrote in this year’s The Revolution That Wasn’t
, social networks have more reliably served to reinforce existing social hierarchies. Getting wide reach on platforms typically takes pre-existing celebrity, a coordinated campaign, or both. As Schradie told Vox.com
The idea of neutrality seems more true of the internet because the costs of distributing information are dramatically lower than with something like television or radio or other communication tools.
However, to make full use of the internet, you still need substantial resources and time and motivation. The people who can afford to do this, who can fund the right digital strategy, create a major imbalance in their favor.
That’s why it’s somewhat disingenuous to paint Facebook in particular as a great equalizer in national politics. Especially when the company has chosen to accept paid political advertising — which naturally tends to benefit the wealthy and the status quo.
Finally, Zuckerberg presents Facebook as somewhat divorced from the real-world consequences of its speech decisions. He acknowledges that the company makes mistakes, but short of plugging its forthcoming independent oversight board, avoids discussion of what ought to happen when the company makes them. So much of the frustration with Facebook — over its size, its power, and its decisions on content moderation — stems from the fact that its decisions can have deadly consequences.
Think of the sectarian violence in Myanmar, or Sri Lanka, or India that has resulted from unfettered speech on the platform. Think of the new mothers who have joined anti-vaccination groups in the United States after Facebook’s algorithm suggested they do so. Facebook has taken action to remedy these problems after the fact. But it was never held accountable for them. (If a single person lost their job over any of those calamities, it has never been made public.)
There is something untenable about a massive corporation / quasi-state that sets global speech policies but never has to answer for them, outside the odd Congressional hearing or public-relations crisis. It’s easy to stand firmly on the side of free speech when the only negative consequence you suffer as a result is more speech.
What happens next? On one side, gradual improvements in detecting fake accounts, and incitements to violence. On another, outrageous lies in political ads going viral throughout the 2020 US presidential election campaign, creating increasing pressure for Facebook to changes its policies. A Zuckerberg interview on Fox News that fails to change anyone’s mind on any subject. Regulation, maybe? Antitrust enforcement?
What stays up? What comes down? The debate is necessary, complicated, and far from over.