In October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rounded up an audience in a classically appointed lecture hall at Georgetown University and declared, “Giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.”
“The ability to speak freely,” he added, “has been central in the fight for democracy worldwide.”
Bold words from a man whose company grew out of a site that hacked Harvard directories and copied photos without permission to rate the attractiveness of students. Then again, we were all young once.
The bigger point is, Zuckerberg’s lofty – and persistent – messaging shrouds the fact that Facebook is not, and has never been, about spreading democracy. Facebook, like any commercial internet platform (and pretty much every private company), is designed first and foremost to make money. If a few suppressed dissidents find their voice along the way? That’s icing on the cake. But rest assured, Facebook would continue to happily rake in billions of dollars whether it “empowered the powerless” or not.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently offensive about this. In a capitalist society, it is not the role of private enterprise to safeguard the First Amendment. What is offensive about Zuck’s spiel, however, is that he apparently believes that we haven’t caught on to something incredibly important – to wit, Facebook’s relationship with free expression is a marriage of convenience, to be invoked when the free market and political winds are turning against it (which, happily and deservedly, has been happening much more often recently).
In truth, the content moderation judgments of companies like Facebook and its “
d on’t be evil” sibling Google are only about the “advancement of free speech” to the extent that unfettered speech is great for their business. To that end, their content decisions turn on what outcome will diffuse the crisis of the day, avoid a mass exodus of subscribers, or forestall regulation – all while preserving the highest volume of content possible. This is why their content moderation patterns appear to change radically depending upon who holds power in government at any given moment – because they aren’t based on a well-articulated, consistent set of standards. They are based on protecting the bottom line.
No one expects platforms to be perfect in their content moderation, but one would hope that their decisions might bend toward justice. Unfortunately, the only “bending” at Facebook seems to be “over backwards” to preserve toxicity online. (Which, by the way, drives engagement. But we’re certain the foot-dragging over restricting such material is just coincidence.)
While publicly celebrating empowerment at every turn, Facebook has been slow to pull posts or to adjust its algorithms that promote misinformation, vitriol, and outright unlawful behavior. Its platform has hosted hate groups, processed contributions to white nationalists, ignored denials of genocide, facilitated markets for the illegal sale of drugs and other criminality, enabled harassment, helped prop up the Gulf slave trade, livestreamed mass shootings and suicides, fueled religious riots in India, and allowed hate speech and misinformation that has fueled ethnic cleansing.
Is this what Zuckerberg meant when he said that Facebook’s mission to give everyone a voice “pushes society to be better over time”? Obviously not – but considering what giving everyone a voice has actually accomplished, his words feel particularly disingenuous.
His words are also false – Facebook does not give everyone a voice. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, Facebook “routinely restricts posts that governments deem sensitive or off-limits” in countries such as Cuba, India, Israel, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey. In Vietnam, Facebook blacklisted a blogger – again, at the government’s behest – who had been criticizing authorities’ plans to seize farmland to build a factory. According to the Times story, this is just one of hundreds of examples of Facebook’s acquiescence to the Vietnamese government.
How is it that Facebook can claim “respect” for free expression, yet finds it so difficult to address the hateful and illegal activity previously catalogued… and finds it easy to squelch legitimate political protest and journalism? And why does that ”respect” seem to disappear as soon as any kind of “free speech” starts to affect the platform’s bottom line?
Facebook did launch its independent Oversight Board in recent months, which will weigh in on a limited number of specific moderation cases with potential widespread impact. But by focusing on only a miniscule number of cases at any given time, the Board won’t even put a dent in Facebook’s ocean of content and the toxic waves that crest within it – which is exactly how Facebook likes it.
For all its talk of protecting free expression, Facebook conveniently overlooks its own First Amendment right, as a private entity building an online community, to decide what kind of content and conduct it is going to host. To that end, it has a responsibility, under common standards of decency, to make such decisions with consistency and transparency, even when it may be difficult to do so – and even when it may not please everybody.
We would like to see Facebook quit the grandstanding and grow up. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the world’s most powerful individuals, the unchallenged owner of a company that can change political outcomes and alter the lives of billions of people. And yet, for all his big talk about protecting free speech, Facebook still seems driven by the values of a hot-or-not site founded in a college kid’s dorm room. It traffics in titillation, controversy, and rage, elevating the most salacious content regardless of who gets burned along the way. Changing this disfunction begins with transparency, and it begins with honesty about who the company is – not a valiant protector of free speech, but a (massively lucrative) private business that could choose to be a good corporate citizen and do the right thing… but has not.
We would like to see that change.