Facebook’s touting of free speech is deceptive. They want you to forget how their platform works.
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.
Why social media is responsible for our fake news crisis.
We will talk about social media, I promise. But I want to first tell the story of Dan Rather’s fall from grace.
Dan Rather spent decades as the CBS Evening News anchor, one of the big three for nightly news. In 2004, on 60 Minutes Wednesday, he reported on the Killian Documents: a series of memos that were critical of George W Bush’s service during his time in the Air National Guard. It turned out that there were many reasons—including the use of modern typeface—to doubt the authenticity of the memos. Eventually, CBS News recanted the story, fired the producer, and forced Dan Rather to move up his retirement. The entire episode came to be known as RatherGate.
A highly respected decades-long career in news was capped by a “-Gate” because of lack of devotion to fact-checking. Of course no one believed that Dan Rather’s team forged memos themselves. Instead, what people were objecting to was their lack of editorial judgment. Given their giant megaphone, they had the responsibility, as a publisher, to be a gatekeeper for factual news.
Platform or publisher?
Why, then, do we not hold social media companies to the same standard? Why do we let them get away with spreading fake news, propaganda, conspiracies, and hate speech through their platforms?
At heart, I would argue, is a semantic confusion. We generally don’t hold pure platforms accountable for the content that is carried on their wires. For instance, if I was to receive a death threat over my cell phone, not for a minute would I think to blame my wireless carrier, Cricket. The fault would lie with the threat-maker, alone.
On the other hand, we can and do beat up on newspapers, cable shows, even bookstores, that carry objectionable content. As publishers, we expect them to have volition and exercise choice.