Zuckerberg’s View of Speech on Facebook Is Stuck in 2004

Zuckerberg's View of Speech on Facebook Is Stuck in 2004


Twitter boss Jack Dorsey noticed that Zuckerberg is still clinging to his old tropes and took full advantage of his rival’s absolutist views. Just as Facebook began its earnings call with investors Wednesday, Dorsey said Twitter would, effective November 22, ban political advertising.

Dorsey has also taken a lot of heat in the past three years for his platform’s role in promoting disinformation in politics and in life. In the face of criticism, he’s consistently demurred, maddeningly projecting the image of an inscrutable philosopher, too far removed to see what was going on.

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But he looked like a bona fide statesman Wednesday next to Zuckerberg. “This isn’t about free expression,” Dorsey said. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

Twitter isn’t a big enough player in political advertising for this to affect Dorsey’s bottom line. And, no, it doesn’t tackle the cesspool of bots and trolls churning out lies and hate for free on the platform. But it forced Zuckerberg to respond on his earnings call, saying “At times of social tension there has often been an urge to pull back on free expression … We will be best served over the long term by resisting this urge and defending free expression.”

The irony is that Facebook is limiting free expression on its platforms. It has hired tens of thousands of people and spent billions of dollars in the past three years to effectively create a constitution for its 2.5 billion users. There are now detailed rules for what nudity is OK, what’s mouthing off, and what constitutes a real threat of violence, which is banned. The instructions for moderating hate speech alone run more than 200 pages.

But on the issue of political speech—arguably the most important part of free expression—Zuckerberg remains an absolutist. His view is rooted in Facebook’s earliest days, when Zuckerberg liked to talk about his creation not as something new but as digitizing and speeding up something that had existed for all time—conversation.

The problem is that many people in democratic societies increasingly wonder if the political free-for-all is such a good idea anymore. Many now believe Zuckerberg’s position is like saying nuclear weapons are just more powerful explosives. By amplifying and speeding up political discourse, Zuckerberg has created something entirely new, and it needs to be viewed that way.

There are myriad speculations about what’s driving Zuckerberg’s absolutism. Is he trying to appease conservatives, who view Zuckerberg as another liberal media mogul out to get them? Or is he just trying to protect one of the sweetest deals a media company could ever hope for? Zuckerberg now gets to distribute and curate the news and information for more than 2.5 billion people—and make money from those eyeballs—with little risk of being held liable for the content. Lawyers at Facebook, and other traditional media companies, believe that protection is finite: Curate too much and Facebook might become responsible for the accuracy of every post on its platform.

Zuckerberg himself says he is making a simple moral choice. And maybe that’s true, since he’s been an absolutist on political speech since he started Facebook. The problem with that explanation is that it’s hard to believe any discussion about morality from a man who has profited so handsomely from it. Zuckerberg is worth $70 billion. Facebook itself is worth worth half a trillion dollars. That’s especially true given concerns that Zuckerberg and Facebook have wrongly skewed elections and helped dictators more easily oppress their citizens.

The “whys” may not ultimately matter. Fifteen years ago, Zuckerberg promised that the Facebook revolution would make the world more open and connected—a better place. People in Silicon Valley used to say that as if it were a given. It’s clearly not a given anymore. Many believe Facebook has made the world more angry and divided. It still makes money from advertisers in torrents. But fewer and fewer view it as particularly magical anymore, and more and more talk as if they could imagine a world without it.

Zuckerberg says he gets the complexity of the decisions he and Facebook must make. “The question is, where do you draw the line” between what you keep up and what you take down? he asked in his Georgetown speech.

The world doesn’t seem to like where Zuckerberg has drawn that line. But Zuckerberg has made it clear he isn’t going to change where he draws it. The only question now is whether someone forces that choice upon him.


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