Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has never been the most decisive leader. People are allowed to change their minds of course but Zuckerberg has often stumbled and bumbled when confronted with big PR problems.
Case in point: his insistence that Facebook will run political ads, even ones that are demonstrably false.
“I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians and the news,” he said during a recent conference call with investors.
To be fair, Zuckerberg has never been comfortable with policing Facebook content. But then again, he probably never thought 2.3 billion people would actively use the social media site every month when he launched the company from his Harvard dorm room in the late 1990s.
In addition, Zuckerberg has clearly said he believes the future of Facebook lies with privacy, not truth. In a lengthy post in March, Zuckerberg laid out a brand new strategic vision for his company:
I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.
Fair enough. But high minded principles don’t always jive with reality. Zuckerberg acknowledges this when he accurately notes bad people might exploit these encrypted services to do bad things.
When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion… We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps… But we face an inherent trade-off because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today…Finding the right ways to protect both privacy and safety is something societies have historically grappled with.
Here’s where Zuckerberg runs into problems. In referencing only illegal activities like child exploitation and terrorism, he seems to take a very narrow view of what “safety” means to society. In other words, Facebook is responsible for rooting only unlawful things from its services.
But even technically legal things can cause great harm to society, such as misinformation and Internet trolling. Zuckerberg of all people should know this: U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016 through Internet sites like Facebook by sowing divisions falsehoods among Americans. Attacking the very pillars of democracy seems pretty detrimental to society.
Zuckerberg seems to agree as Facebook has frequently acknowledged that it dismantled sites from foreign countries like Russia and Iran attempting to spread misinformation and influence elections.
Yet what happens if the people spreading misinformation happen to be American? According to Zuckerberg, that’s legitimate, protected political speech.
Of course, this makes no sense as ill intended disinformation campaigns harms society no matter if they originate from Tehran or Toledo. Zuckerberg is essentially saying that no one can harm America– only Americans are allowed to do that.
(BTW: Twitter announced that it will ban all political ads from its service. Man, when Twitter sounds like the reasonable company on the Internet, you know you got problems.)
Besides, not all political speech is protected. We still have something in this country called libel and defamation laws. By Zuckerberg’s reasoning, Facebook will run a political ad from the Trump campaign that says we shouldn’t elect Joe Biden as President because he likes to rape little children.
You can make a legal distinction between allowing someone to use Facebook to run a child porn ring and allowing someone to run an ad on Facebook that falsely accuses a politician of running a child porn ring.
But when it comes to harming society, that distinction seems rather thin.