It’s official: Facebook has doubled down on its goal of imposing its radical ideology on the world.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t have been more clear in his comments at a tech conference last week:
“We’re going to stand up for free expression. It’s unfortunate that this is such a controversial thing. This is a new approach, and I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people.”
Only it isn’t a new approach, considering Facebook recently declined to fact-check political ads and other conduits of false or inflammatory speech. It has been pretending to be an agnostic platform instead of a responsible publisher since its founding.
“Free expression” is a misnomer, because what Facebook does is connect and thereby amplify expression more than enable its freedom; in fact, it’s a filter for information, whether shared between individuals or from organizations and advertisers, and substitutes the limiting beliefs of some perfectly mad crowds for its own rational management.
And it makes billions of dollars doing it, so there’s nothing free about expression on Facebook.
There are any number of examples of ways the Internet has made our lives easier and better, especially for those of us who remember slogging to a library to consult an encyclopedia or search through physical newspapers (or microfiche!). Shopping has become far more of a treat, or less of a chore.
Social media specifically have made tangible relationships that we once took for granted or lost through blind neglect. They enable a vast number of communities to organize and do good. Social media let me share posts like this one. I get the value.
But there are other ways we “pay” for the convenience of access and group acceptance.
For every website useful for a grade schooler’s research project there’s a porn site only a URL away. Online sales scams are as common as shopping deals. While interested cross-stitchers organize meetings, white supremacists and lying politicians are busy propagating hate and outright violence.
So, since there’s an audience for pretty much anything online, does that mean that everything is legitimate and somehow self-managing? Is choosing your favorite biases the same thing as participating in open debate? Once you get sorted into a bubble filled with like-minded people, expression conforms to very strict rules, however self or group-imposed, so what happens to freedom?
The cost of these outcomes can be seen in the psychological damage to individuals and our communities writ large. We are at once better off and more connected, yet feel worse and often quite alone.
Facebook isn’t solely responsible for this state of affairs (not by a long shot), but it’s certainly a key contributor. It also isn’t the cause of the ignorant or evil content that it publishes; rotten, ill-informed people have been spouting off their stupidity since time began, and one person’s nutty idea is another’s brilliant exception. Everyone has a right to be wrong.
More importantly, society has faced such challenges before.
The printing press was a new approach to expression. So were coffee houses, and then steam-driven newspaper distribution, radio, and television. Governments and institutional authorities felt threatened by each of them and often overreacted with regulation but, over time, uneasy and ever-evolving balances were struck between what free meant while trying to preserve truth and accountability while preventing harm.
The only thing that’s truly new about Facebook’s approach is that it is ahistorical.
I can think of two reasons for it: Either Mr. Zuckerberg is simply staking out an extreme position with the expectation that he’ll have to roll it back (so why start in the middle?), or he is truly an ideological zealot and has no concept of history or Facebook’s role in shaping the present.
My guess is the former, which means this debate has just begun, and it should be met by an equally bold and unforgiving “new” approach to how government addresses the company. We users can also add our voice (or, like in my case, just quit the damn thing).
Negotiating with extremists is tough and unpleasant. But now there can be no question of roles, nor of what’s at stake.