Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is under attack because of the consequences of too-free speech on his platform.
But it’s possible he may be a more considerable public figure than many had him down for, after he made a reasoned and principled address defending free speech (and his company’s approach to it) at Georgetown University last week.
The immediate kerfuffle was over political campaigning. The Trump campaign put out a social media ad which implied that Democratic candidate Joe Biden had corrupt motives in helping fire a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the Ukrainian company which employed his son. Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential contender, riposted by attacking Facebook for letting politicians run advertisements with false claims. To prove her point and get some publicity (good for her, not so good for rival Biden), she ran a self-proclaimed false ad – on Facebook.
There are some delightfully Orwellian motifs in this. The Trump ad was efficiently wordsmithed to transform a bare statement of fact into an unevidenced suggestion of dishonesty. The Warren ad accuses Facebook of directly supporting Trump (hyperbole) and then says ‘Not true’ (irony – explained in case you didn’t get it).
No tricks for Zuckerberg. First up, he made the case for tech platforms:
“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world – a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard … I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands”.
Then his qualifiers:
“At the same time, I know that free expression has never been absolute. Some people argue internet platforms should allow all expression protected by the First Amendment, even though the First Amendment explicitly doesn’t apply to companies.”
“… where do you draw the line? Most people agree with the principle that you should be able to say things other people don’t like, but you shouldn’t be able to say things that put people in danger.”
Leading eventually to the conclusion:
“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.”
His apologia has struck a chord with some; Niall Ferguson providing trenchant support in the Boston Globe.
But he will have to hope that he gets a few more on board because the attack from the left shows no sign of abating. Warren seems to believe she is getting traction accusing Facebook of “taking money to promote lies”. She may also hope that any ‘fact-checking’ process would bring Facebook more into line with traditional media and indeed her own view of the facts. This line of thinking can perhaps be deduced from a striking comment by US media pundit Matt Yglesias:
“It’s really underappreciated how much Facebook is, for whatever reason, a platform for primarily spreading low-quality right-wing content and not just like some open “fifth estate” in which the people make their voices heard.”
And Zuckerberg still has his work cut out convincing some on the right of the political spectrum. National Review columnist Kevin Williamson arguing that Facebook should face up to the (leftish) editorial choices it already makes and be transparent on its criteria:
“The rhetoric of “safety” must be understood as an intellectual dodge and nothing more, a way for Facebook to enjoy the desultory exercise of editorial powers without taking on more editorial responsibilities.”
Given its profound impact, it seems inevitable that Facebook’s policies will be a lightening rod attracting the discontent of anyone who thinks they are suffering the consequences. That is also a good reason to scrutinise their critiques with care.
And if you believe Facebook has opened up new and important modes of expression, you’ll probably want it to err on the side of liberality, rather than stringency.
As Zuckerberg observes:
“And 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.”
It’s a good point. If only it were that simple.