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2 Jun, 2020 19:27

Zuckerberg won’t censor Trump, but don’t mistake Facebook for a bastion of free speech

Zuckerberg won’t censor Trump, but don’t mistake Facebook for a bastion of free speech

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken heat over refusing to hide a post from US President Donald Trump that Twitter claimed “glorified violence.” But his reasons are more about placating power than defending free speech.

Zuckerberg’s decision to leave up a Trump post condemning the riots in Minneapolis that warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” upset Facebook employees, a few of whom even threatened to appeal to the company’s newly-appointed oversight board – notoriously larded with anti-Trump voices.

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But the CEO’s reasoning – “people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open” – had little in common with the fiery rhetoric of free speech activism. In fact, it was so mind-numbingly obvious it would likely have gone unremarked-upon in any other era. How, indeed, are Americans supposed to hold their leaders accountable if they don’t know what those leaders are saying?

It’s not clear if anyone would even have expected Facebook to take action on Trump’s post, had Twitter not already done so, hiding the message behind a warning that it violated the platform’s rules about “glorifying violence.” And it’s unlikely that Twitter would have taken action on that particular message had the president not been needling the platform for weeks with envelope-pushing tweets, starting with accusing MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of murdering an intern nearly 20 years ago. 

While Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski demanded Trump be kicked off Twitter for the smears, it was a post about mail-in voting that finally brought down Twitter’s fact-check hammer. Still, that was enough of a rationale for Trump to unveil an executive order proposing to strip social media platforms of their cherished Section 230 immunity, which protects them from lawsuits based on user-generated content but also forbids them from selectively curating that content. Checkmate? 

Silicon Valley is hurtling into a future whose ever-shrinking boundaries are dictated by censorship algorithms and all rough edges are sanded off (literally, in Twitter’s case) lest any comment wound another user’s feelings. Facebook is as guilty of this as anyone, alerting Instagram users when they’re about to post a “bullying” comment and banning “sexual” emojis. Even as social media styles itself the “new public square,” platforms find themselves in the surreal position of trying to outdo each other in silencing their users: if Facebook exiles conservative performance artist Alex Jones, declaring him a “dangerous individual,” Youtube and Twitter follow suit.

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However, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has attempted to apply the platform’s increasingly absurd restrictions across the board, subjecting even the president of the US to Kafkaesque limitations that seem to shift from day to day, Zuckerberg knows on which side his bread is buttered. While his competitors in Silicon Valley wore their anti-Trump politics on their sleeves, the Facebook founder met with Republican congressmen and took care to include Breitbart in the rollout of Facebook News, triggering howls of outrage from liberals.  

While Dorsey exiled political advertising from his platform completely earlier this year, Zuckerberg has clung to his promise not to fact-check the speech of politicians – ensuring a steady flow of advertising dollars from both parties’ campaigns, even as Democratic politicians condemn Facebook’s hands-off approach.

This doesn’t make Zuckerberg a free speech hero, or Facebook a bastion of political enlightenment. “Regular” users will still find themselves shadow-banned or exiled entirely if they post too much “wrongthink,” as even popular pages like PragerU have discovered recently. The Facebook CEO’s equal-opportunity pandering merely makes him a competent businessman, and means he’ll almost certainly survive whatever Section 230-related crackdown is coming.

It also makes it vanishingly unlikely Zuckerberg’s platform will face anything like a takeover bid from formidable Republican “vulture capitalist” and rabidly pro-Israel Trump donor Paul Singer. The notorious hedge-funder reportedly sought to oust Dorsey from Twitter earlier this year when the CEO suggested he’d be stepping back from full-time management of the company to spend six months of the year in Africa. While Singer was apparently rebuffed with the help of loyal Twitter employees and fellow billionaire Elon Musk, he still has four directors on the company’s board and may still be circling overhead looking for signs of weakness.

Twitter has fallen a long way from the days when it referred to itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and now competes with Facebook and YouTube for the title of Silicon Valley’s Ministry of Truth. The future of social media looks bleak indeed when Zuckerberg is cast as the defender of free speech. But ordinary Facebook users shouldn’t mistake his indulgence of Trump for standing on principle. His legendarily low opinion of the platform’s users – “dumb f***s” – is more pertinent now than ever.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.