The self-righteous grandstanding of Facebook's critics
It wasn't so long ago that the blue website was one of the good guys
There are very few things that Ted Cruz and the editorial pages of our few remaining national newspapers agree about. But Mark Zuckerberg as history's greatest monster? Well, obviously. This is a man who simultaneously used his monopoly power to silence anyone slightly to the right of early-'90s Al Gore and single-handedly elected Donald Trump on the orders of — well, someone, maybe that one Russian professor who turned out not even to be a professor. What's not to hate?
I am old enough to remember a different time, though, when Facebook was one of those revolutionary technologies that was going to help usher in the golden age by bringing us all together. In 2008, when the blue website had helped elect Barack Obama, we were still living in the end of history. You could feel it: We were only one Heritage Foundation-approved health care bill and a few more pictures of Grandma's dogs in their Thanksgiving outfits away from Xanadu. Zuckerberg's achievement was so extraordinary that his life was the subject of a mumblecore biopic starring that kid from The Squid and the Whale and SexyBack himself.
That, as they say, was then. This hysterical opinion piece by Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times is now. According to the guy who has devoted his life to lionizing megalomaniacal Malcolm Gladwell profile subjects, the CEO of Facebook is not only propping up freedom of speech, he is actually "assaulting truth" by allowing political ads to appear on his website. Sorkin offers only one example of this veracity-battering outrage, a fairly anodyne spot in which plain facts about a certain politician's record are interpreted the way that roughly 50 percent of the country interprets them. (I leave the reader to guess which one.)
I don't know if the creator of The West Wing has ever actually watched, you know, television, but ads in which politicians play fast and loose with facts and context have been appearing there for a long time — for nearly as long as television has existed, actually. I don't know how high Sorkin's opinion of the American people is, but if he thinks that they are not smart enough to evaluate campaign advertisements on their own, I hope he has some alternative political arrangement in mind, because democracy is a hell of a lot harder than that. Why should people capable of being duped by a 30-second commercial be allowed to decide whether we should cut taxes or build new airports or go to war? When Sorkin writes that he wants "speech protections to make sure no one gets imprisoned or killed for saying or writing something unpopular, not to ensure that lies have unfettered access to the American electorate," he might as well be quoting one of the reactionary 19th-century popes. Not bad!
Sorkin's argument is of a piece with what liberals have been saying since at least November 2016 about the internet, which is suddenly the scariest thing in the world. (Amazing, isn't it, how things change when it's not just the scrappy, innovative youngsters creating a massive database of people's personal information in order to game an election.) Their argument, as rehearsed ad infinitum by everyone from Hillary Clinton on down, is that a few bots on Twitter or whatever were the sole reason Trump won the election. Unfortunately for them, there is no evidence that this actually happened — the only group among whom Trump improved upon Mitt Romney's share of the vote in 2012 was people who do not regularly use the internet (hint: old retired Democrats in places like Macomb County, Michigan).
I must say I don't mind watching the hydra bite off its own heads. Only a few years ago, an executive at Twitter described the company as "the free speech wing of the free speech party." Now political ads are being banned from its platform. (It will be interesting to see how long it takes before we learn that, say, Planned Parenthood is not political.) Meanwhile, some guy in California is running for governor of California on a single issue: removing political ads from the blue website. Facebook decided to turn down his own deliberately misleading campaign spots, and now he is suing them. Apparently these are the big issues in a state with Louis XVI levels of income inequality and Soviet infrastructure.
As it happens, I share most of these people's concerns about what the internet is doing to us. The instantaneous and more or less unmediated exchange of information among billions of people is not unambiguously good — in fact, it is probably straightforwardly bad. But blaming a single company (or politician) for this technology, and for the naive attitudes about the first-order value of free expression that made it possible, is empty self-righteous posturing.