Social media: Facebook’s free speech plea
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t apologizing to the critics who say he needs to police his enormous platform, said Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac in The New York Times. “In a winding, 35-minute speech at Georgetown University,” Zuckerberg pushed back against “the idea that the social network needed to be an arbiter of speech,” saying he believed his company must “stand for free expression.” Under fire from regulators and politicians, he defended Facebook’s controversial decision not to fact-check the political ads that appear on the site. But Zuckerberg’s unusually forceful lecture on the ills of censorship—invoking China, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr.—suggested he is trying to reframe the debate “in a politicized environment where the company had been accused of amplifying disinformation, hate speech, and violent content.”
It was a lot of kumbaya, “we’re all in this together” stuff from Zuckerberg, said Rani Molla in Vox.com. We’ve already heard his vague plans to use artificial intelligence to take down fake accounts. The only part that’s really new is when Zuckerberg told the audience that his idea to start Facebook “arose amid the uncertainty of the Iraq War,” which shaped his belief in giving “power to the powerless.” That’s not exactly the origin story we all remember—you know, the one where Zuckerberg created it to let Harvard classmates rate one another’s attractiveness.
Give Zuckerberg credit, said Jim Geraghty in the National Review. “A whole lot of powerful political, social, and economic entities would like to see him bend a knee,” and he stood firm. He says the company has two responsibilities—one, to remove content “when it could cause real danger” and, two, to uphold “as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.” And he’s right to draw distinctions. “Organized Russian government–driven disinformation efforts are not the same as some yokel spouting off, and shouldn’t be treated the same.”
Facebook is not “a neutral conduit for the dissemination of speech,” said Casey Newton in TheVerge.com. It has always tended to “favor the angry and the outrageous over the levelheaded and inspiring.” Zuckerberg avoided the real question about Facebook’s role in society: how it decides which posts have reach. For instance, Zuckerberg left out any mention of Myanmar, said Shira Ovide in Bloomberg.com, “the crucible of Facebook’s free-speech principles.” In allowing the spread of hoaxes, false claims, and calls for violence, often by politicians, Facebook helped cause a genocide of the Rohingya Muslims; the company later admitted it was “too slow to act.” Facebook has handed a megaphone to 2.7 billion people, and such failures “to recognize the harmful effects of its amplification of dangerous or divisive views” happen again and again. ■