Silicon Valley’s reputation for liberal values is starting to wane.
One of the fiercest opponents to ongoing efforts of regulating big tech is Mark Zuckerberg. In leaked audio of an internal Facebook Q&A session, when the topic of Elizabeth Warren’s plans of breaking up big tech came up, Zuckerberg vowed to “go to the mat” and fight it. This might sound benign upon first listen, but it is the core of what Mark Zuckerberg has come to represent in Silicon Valley’s faux appeal to progressive values. Instead of perceiving the long-lasting damage it’s done to global democracy as deeply abhorrent and working to fix it, Facebook would rather continue to hide behind free speech platitudes and the faint promise of betterment with nothing concrete to bear it out.
On Thursday, in an effort to make his values more clearly known, Zuckerberg delivered an address on free expression at Georgetown University in Washington DC. What had become quickly apparent, is that this was nothing more than a PR stunt for Facebook to promote the idea that Zuckerberg hadn’t completely lost the script while promoting the unconditional growth of his quasi-monopolistic social media empire. To start, the following Q&A had only featured questions submitted by students beforehand, and therefore pertains in small terms to the contents of the actual address — so now that free speech was tossed out the window, it was time for the clown show to start.
This whole nothing-burger of a speech went through several big themes of what inspired the creation of Facebook from its earliest days in Harvard — somehow retconning its origin from a poorly-conceived dating website to a response to the Iraq war — well through the beginning of what would redefine communication infrastructure for the modern age. Zuckerberg talked about how the platform elevated real-world gathering circles by giving them a place and a voice on his platform. “Most progress happens in our lives. It’s the church group, the Air Force moms. This is one of Facebook’s greatest hits. Check! No more gatekeepers. Check! Amazing expansion of voice! Check!” Zuckerberg said. Though optimistic about what his platform has done, Zuckerberg seems to overlook the fact that it is precisely this unfettered access to amplification methods that has allowed nefarious voices to run about unchecked. There was a time when the Alex Jones-led InfoWars — which the platform took painfully long to ban — was allowed a place on Facebook even though it broke every single rule regarding harassment, incitement of violence and discrimination. So to see it brought down to a commoner’s level makes it seem like Zuckerberg is being willfully obtuse, rather than being completely honest about what Facebook has enabled through lackluster moderation, and indeed the absence of any sensible gatekeeping doctrine.How the equalization of truth and falsehood enables misinformation.
Later on in his speech, Zuckerberg talks about a crucial piece surrounding the discussion of anonymity on the internet. While inconclusive, Zuckerberg seems to suggest that Facebook is slowly heading towards mandatory ID, rather than having to individually screen content. This can only be described as an ill-measured response to poor working conditions of Facebook moderators, where instead of paying them more and ensuring they have ample amounts of emotional levity to avert trauma, Zuckerberg seems to think that doing away with moderation and individual accountability is a more effective method. The latter couldn’t have been more untrue as often spreaders of harmful speech are more than proud to don their real identity online, and it’s how we got in Input’s Ryan Houlihan’s words, “the intellectual apocalypse.”
Zuckerberg quickly followed thereafter with a segment on hate speech. Facebook’s CEO — the arbiter of decisions affecting a population of users greater than that of China — seemingly doesn’t understand the implications of his narrow definition and outlook on hate speech. For Zuckerberg, freedom of expression is a zero-sum game — the conceit is, if you police speech, you’re not “empowering people” but if you do, you’re trying to “impose tolerance top down.”
In furthering that, Zuckerberg made the mistake of attributing Martin Luther King Jr’s triumphs as an American civil rights icon to his embrace of free expression. “We saw this when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was unconstitutionally jailed for protesting peacefully,” Zuckerberg said. Bernice King — King’s daughter — was quick to react with a reality check, reminding Mark that what got King assassinated in the first place was the result of misinformation campaigns perpetrated under the very premise of unchecked freedom of expression. Like many other forces in modern society, ‘freedom of expression’ as it currently operates is only subject to modes of manifestation permitted by government and populace. A great sum of newly-granted rights to minorities would have to necessarily mean a repression of speech for opposing parties, but we do it anyway in the interest of progress and moral persistence.
It looks as though Zuckerberg’s attempt to convince his audience — and the entire world by extension — of his concise understanding of free expression has proven to be not at all that concise. Instead of owning up to mistakes past, Zuckerberg doubled down on the nebulous concept of free speech as an animus to innovation and progress, but overlooked the many points at which operating on that very principle has halted its march. “Facebook prefers to project an image of a business dutifully serving what just so happens to be two billion individuals rather than a digital advertising mill grinding users into valuable grist, an image critics are more likely to paint,” says Taylor Hatmaker for the Daily Beast.
Being one such critic, Facebook’s attempts for reform have struck as mostly superficial, and responding more to the structure of the product rather than its underlying design principles. Facebook announced back in March a hard pivot to “privacy”, but it has yet to deliver on that promise. Similarly, an initiative announced back in May about sharing data with researchers in order to further inquire about Facebook’s impact on democracy has yet to be ratified. This comes on the heels of reports about Zuckerberg reaching out to conservative pundits to talk about issues of free speech as it tries to throw Republican lawmakers off its scent as accusations of liberal bias loom large on the ongoing big tech regulatory proceedings.
All of this is but putting a band-aid on a massive wound. Facebook — approaching public utility ubiquity — should absolutely be concerned about being discriminatory towards harmful forms of speech. The first amendment acts as a protective veil for Mark Zuckerberg to continue hiding behind the emptiest statements on absolute freedom of speech — even though the United States Supreme Court made it very clear it doesn’t apply to private platforms — and it’s downright sobering to see a government that once instituted the Patriot Act into effect, now ponder the consequences of what an unrestricted access to means of boosting politically unstabilizing rhetoric is doing to the fabric of modern society. If Zuckerberg’s words are anything to go by, those questions have not been as closely examined as they perhaps should’ve been.
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