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Mark Zuckerberg’s been talking to conservatives, and it pissed progressives off. So much so that the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began circulating. Maybe if we’re lucky, everyone who deletes their facebook over this will pen posts about how virtuous and righteous they are for doing so, before getting off the platform for two weeks, then sneaking back on because they miss everyone.
This past year has seen many changes for Facebook. In April, Zuckerberg spoke at a congressional hearing about how Facebook handles user data and what regulation would mean for social media. Despite accusations from conservatives that the site is biased against them, Senator Elizabeth Warren is threatening to break up Facebook’s many social media platforms using anti-trust laws. Progressives are also accusing the site of allowing too much false information, yet Facebook continues its refusal to interfere with the political content on the platform.
Zuckerberg’s dinners with conservatives, including Senator Lindsey Graham and Fox commentator Tucker Carlson, were likely in response to a report conducted by Senator Jon Kyle and law firm Covington and Burling LLP, released in August. The report, over a year in the making, showed decisively that Facebook had an anti-conservative bias. Now that Facebook is trying to fix it, Zuckerberg is being hassled by progressives who think that Facebook has been in conservative pockets all along.
It makes sense that Zuckerberg would take these meetings. His goal seems to be to make the site something of a social media Switzerland, a neutral, third party platform, not a publisher that would be held to account for the shared content of its users. This is probably a smart move, since controlling Facebook’s content is basically an impossible task. Facebook could not take down the video released of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year. No matter how much it was flagged and removed, it kept popping up elsewhere. There are secret and closed groups across the platform, some of which engage in the practice of sharing child pornography. No doubt Zuckerberg wants to steer clear of liability for that.
Senator Warren also has a clear idea of how the platform should be run, and what kind of control it should exercise over user content. This week, she is slated to release an intentionally fake political ad on Facebook to see how Facebook would respond. Her goal is to point out that Facebook will run fake ads.
Trump released an ad full of false information as well, but with the intention of spreading the information as truth. Both Twitter and Facebook declined to remove the ad from their platforms. In practice, running an ad with false information for the intention of showing that a platform will allow an ad with misleading info to run and running an ad with bad info for the purpose of spreading those untruths, even if you believe them, is exactly the same thing. It is using the platform disingenuously and for political gain.
Trump’s goal is to get votes. Warren’s goal is to get votes. Don’t the voters deserve better? Warren’s tactic was hailed as a “dare” to the platform, but Facebook isn’t going to pull her ad, they didn’t pull Trump’s either.
Back in July, a recording from a Facebook internal meeting was leaked wherein Zuckerberg stated existential concerns about a Warren presidency. Warren has expressed frustration at what she sees as the site’s monopoly on social media discourse. In addition to the eponymous platform, Facebook owns Instagram and messaging platform WhatsApp.
While Warren threatens to break up Facebook’s monopoly, Attorney General Bill Barr seeks to gain back door entry into WhatsApp, criticizing the platform for making its messaging services more secure. Progressives and conservatives want to take the platform down to achieve their own ends.
Perhaps free speech is a threat to all ideologues and Zuckerberg should be working as hard as he is to ensure it. Though of course, he’s got his own reasons: keeping his company intact, his revenue flowing, and his docket clear of liability lawsuits. Facebook’s behaviour in China shows that Zuckerberg is not some kind of free speech absolutist, but a corporate exec who wants to do what is most profitable and sustainable for his business under the applicable laws of whatever country he’s operating in.
Progressives think Facebook is conservative, conservatives think Facebook is progressive, Elizabeth Warren wants to bust it up like Bell Telephone, creating openings for multiple smaller social media platforms. No doubt these will be easier to control and regulate, and none will be able to attain the powerhouse status of Facebook. The question is not what is better for conservatives, progressives, or even Facebook and Zuckerberg, but what is best for users.
Is it better to have a platform policed by biased content police, no matter what their bias? Regulated by algorithms? Should encrypted messages and the content of secret and closed groups be made available to authorities? How are Facebook, the FBI, and the public going to deal with social media when it crosses the line into serious harm, such as the rampant child pornography problem?
These are difficult questions to answer, and it’s why it’s essential that Zuckerberg search out all perspectives. That progressives are calling out Zuckerberg for talking to all sides reveals that the problem of bias is not localized to any one political perspective, and the issue is more about pushing through an ideology than securing free speech or making sure users are treated fairly by the world’s biggest social media platform. Maybe Facebook and social media is a scourge that we should all delete, but discourse has moved to these platforms, and it isn’t going back to what it was. Instead, we should take responsibility for our own scrolling, and not assume that everything we see is truth.