In a recent speech, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, claimed that their promotion of known lies in political ads is “something we have to live with” because of Facebook’s devotion to the principle of free speech. He cast this decision in the same light as the civil rights struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Lives Matter.
A couple weeks later, he informed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a hearing that the reason they do not fact-check political ads is that they “want people to see that the politician has lied”—thus, once again touting free expression as the animating principle behind their policy.
That’s one way to explain away Facebook’s bumbling, incoherent, opaque, and self-serving rules about content moderation on their platform.
In reality, free speech has little to do with Facebook’s platform and business. Their constant touting of freedom of expression is little more than misdirection, the sort magicians use to get the audience to “look over there!” while the real magic is happening away from view.
Why do I say that Facebook has little to do with free speech? Here are the reasons, from the most obvious to the most subtle.
Facebook is not the government
The First Amendment only prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech of citizens, not private companies, which is what Facebook is. So the First Amendment has nothing at all to say about whether Facebook should moderate content or not; and if they do, what content they should let through. In fact, the First Amendment applies to Facebook in a reverse way: the government cannot abridge Facebook’s right to moderate their content as Facebook sees fit.
Section 230 does not require free speech for users
Fine, many people say, the First Amendment does not require Facebook to provide a platform for all users, but Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act does.
This, too, is incorrect. Section 230 is often nicknamed the “First Amendment of the Internet” and is widely credited as being the special dispensation that allowed the Internet to exist in the form it does today. Perhaps this is why people have misunderstood it to mean that Section 230 requires tech platforms to respect the First Amendment of users.
But this is the reverse of the facts. In fact what Section 230 does is protect Internet companies from liability for third party content they host, whether or not they choose to moderate that content. Effectively, Section 230 is the First Amendment for Internet companies: the government cannot abridge their right to moderate their content as much or as little as they wish. It is their choice.
Governments do not profit off of free speech. Facebook does.
Many people have made the argument that since Facebook is so big, it functions as a quasi-government, perhaps even a multinational one, like the United Nations or the European Union. Facebook itself promotes this notion. They recently created an oversight board nicknamed the “Supreme Court“. They have wanted to enter the currency market with Libra, that governments have seen as a direct challenge to their ability to regulate transactions. Their Free Basics product that gives free internet to under-served populations, that activists deride as a “walled garden”, was initially released as Internet.org, with a “.org” domain that suggested it was a non-profit.
Is it any surprise then that they want to appropriate to themselves a principle normally reserved for governments—free speech? (Apropos of nothing, Mark Zuckerberg is said to have a fascination with Augustus Caesar, to the point where his haircut is styled like Caesar’s.)
But here’s the most obvious thing wrong with this argument: governments do not profit off of the speech of their citizens. Facebook does.
Governments get their legitimacy from being accountable to their citizens. If a government guarantees the right of free speech to its citizens, it is adopting a constraint on itself—it is promising to not punish dissenters.
While Facebook, on the other hand, is a profit-making company that like others of its kind, is accountable only to its shareholders, not to its user-citizens. If it were a government, we would call it corrupt: that is the word we generally apply to governments that are run by profiteers who make national interest decisions based on lining their own pockets.
Regardless of its high-minded rhetoric, Facebook has always made decisions that enhance its profitability. The thing to keep in mind here is that Facebook’s business is built on engagement with its content. The more the content, and the fewer the restrictions on it—the more eyeballs and clicks, and more user data to package as “insights”/Custom Audiences to its advertisers.
Therefore, while “free speech” for a government is a constraint on itself, “free speech” for Facebook is simply good business.
Facebook doesn’t just host speech, it amplifies it
Facebook is not a neutral platform. It has never been. It is a publisher.
This is the core reason why equating Facebook’s service with “free speech” is a misunderstanding at best, and deliberate deception at worst—I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which.
Free speech is a negative right. It’s right there in the First Amendment: government shall not abridge the freedom of speech. Nothing about free speech guarantees your right to be heard.
Facebook isn’t, and never was, a passive host for third party content. As part of its core design, its algorithm amplifies the content that it deems will get the most attention from the user.
Recommendation algorithms are pretty nihilistic. They do not differentiate between posts that get a lot of clicks because they are divisive and inflammatory, and posts that get a lot of clicks because they showcase cute kittens. They cannot tell a well-reported journalistic piece that goes viral because it is a genuine scoop, from a fake news article spun out in a few minutes by the proverbial 400 pound guy sitting on a bed, with made-up inflammatory “facts”.
Nonetheless, they form educated guesses about users and their personalities: if you tend to be a gullible person who regularly clicks on fake news articles, it will feed you more of the same. If your Facebook friend tends to be a sophisticated news consumer, that friend will be none-the-wiser that while their feed is informing and educating them, you are descending into a hermetically-sealed Potemkin village of entirely fake news.
Facebook has striven to push the notion that no one should think of Facebook as a gatekeeper of news. We merely show you what there is, they say. Sorry, but Facebook’s algorithm is, and has always been, a gatekeeper.
Facebook’s algorithm performs the same function as other publishers: choice. Any publisher takes the vast universe of possible content and decides what is worthy of your attention. They are judged for the content that is published under their imprimatur. This is the accountability we ask of any publisher, that they stand behind their choices.
A book publisher who does not want to be known as spinning conspiracy theories will stay away from publishing conspiracy theorists. An art gallery will scrupulously judge what art has merit before showcasing it. A radio disk jockey will imbue their selections with their personality. There is not a publisher in the world who is so promiscuous as to consider “free speech” as a reason to publish someone.
Now since it isn’t a human acting as Facebook’s publisher, but rather, an algorithm, they have pretended that the publishing function isn’t happening at all.
But it is.
Your Facebook newsfeed takes the vast universe of bytes posted to their servers to show you a very small selection based on what it thinks you are most likely to engage with. This is a form of publishing. Like other publishers, Facebook must stand behind the choices made by their algorithm, and stop pretending that such choices were never made.
The solution to objectionable speech is more speech, except when it is Microtargeted
In the recent feud between Aaron Sorkin (creator of the film The Social Network) and Mark Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg shot Sorkin’s own words back at him: “America isn’t easy….You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours….”
What a glorious image! Who wouldn’t want to belong to this raucous, fractious democracy that calls on the best enlightenment principles from its citizens?
Sadly, Facebook does not resemble that remark.
“Speech” from its “citizens”—often money-paying ones—happens in secret little rabbit-holes, not on center stage where others can hear and refute objectionable speech with more speech of their own. Such lies are hidden by design.
The current wave of criticism started with their decision to permit politicians to lie in paid political ads on Facebook. One of the most cogent critiques of this policy came from within the company itself, from a letter of dissent signed by 250 employees. I will let them explain:
Microtargeting is at the core of Facebook’s business. In short: as you click on, like, watch videos, or otherwise engage with posts, Facebook is learning what sort of person you are; based on their knowledge of other people like you in their 2.5 billion userbase, they can accurately judge what sort of ads you will react to. This is an invaluable tool for advertisers, as you can imagine. No need to waste ad dollars for say, sports equipment, on cable channels where millions will see the ad, but only a tiny minority will want to purchase it.
The power of microtargeting political ads is huge, especially if combined with voter rolls, and even more so if coupled with deliberate lies. Gullible religious voters can be shown ads with the lie that the opposing candidate supports banning Christianity. Middle class, frugal voters can be shown lies that the opposing candidate plans to raise taxes on families like theirs. Voters with sick children can be lured with a lie that the opposing candidate plans to do away with their health insurance. And so on.
Now we can see clearly why Zuckerberg’s excuse for permitting lies in paid political advertising is so phony. To remind, what he said was that they permit this as a matter of policy because they want users to see that the politician has lied. But:
- Because political ads are exempted from fact-checking, the lies shown to users are not called out as lies. Far from users seeing that the politician has lied, they are led to believe that the lie is the truth.
- Because of the news silos that are created by Facebook’s algorithms, users who see a certain lie may never be exposed to any other source of information that informs them of the facts. This is not the raucous public square of Zuckerberg’s imagination in his response to Sorkin. It is small, hidden, and secretive: an invaluable tool of propaganda.
- This is Facebook’s policy worldwide. Which means that in countries without a robust, free press, Facebook is essentially acting as a handmaiden to authoritarian governments. Politicians have always lied; but through Facebook their lies can be surgically directed at the most vulnerable populations, with no hope of ever being corrected.
Lies are more powerful than the truth
As any expert in propaganda will tell you, lies go farther, faster than the truth. Lies are easy; limited only by one’s imagination, and designed to grab attention. The debunking of those lies has to be painstaking, based on real research and investigation, and often can only be performed by journalistic organizations backed by well-funded reporters. The debunking is often much less glamorous and much more nuanced.
Any information service that is built on engagement has to contend with this basic notion.
The precious resource here is not people’s ability to lie. Whether you are intent on lying, or intent on telling the truth, the First Amendment means that no government body will come in to stop you. There are plenty of avenues for a grand and raucous cacophony of all sorts of opinions being offered on all sorts of platforms: virtual, in print, or in meat space.
The precious resource is attention. It is eyeballs-on-content. Is your lie or truth told in a vacuum—or do millions of eyeballs see it, and millions of clicking fingers propagate it? This is the precious resource that massive social media platforms like Facebook control, just as surely as OPEC controls oil reserves. No First Amendment guarantees the right of one person’s version of the facts to be prioritized above another’s.
Lies have another advantage: they don’t even have to be consistent with each other! This is another lesson that experts in propaganda teach us: it is enough to flood the zone with content in order to devalue the truth. If people hear constantly contradictory narratives, many will simply give up adjudicating the facts and resort to judging on emotion instead.
Given the inherent asymmetry between the power of lies and the power of truth, any monopolizer of attention like Facebook has a unique role. If they are as nihilistic as Facebook wants to be, they are doing more than merely permitting lies: they are enabling, and being responsible for their spread.
Societies where truth and facts are devalued become ripe for fascist takeovers by empowering the worst among their leaders. Attention monopolizers like Facebook bear an awesome responsibility: if they are nihilistic about facts and non-facts, and spread both equally, propaganda will flood the zone, as it is designed to do—and win. They may not have initially told the lies, but they are responsible for spreading it. It is time we stop buying their sophistical excuses and hold them responsible.
(Featured image credit: Mandel Ngan, AFP via Getty Images via Rolling Stone)