In a recent interview with CBS This Morning’s Gayle King, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to criticism of the company’s policy allowing demonstrably false political ads to run on the site, saying, “What I believe is that in a democracy, it's really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments.” Moments later in the interview, he’d repeat himself, saying, “I just think that in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying."
Variations on this now-familiar line have popped up everywhere from Zuckerberg’s October 23 appearance before the House Financial Services Committee (“In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves”) to an October 17 speech he gave at Georgetown University (“People should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying”).
On its face, this extremely rehearsed and rehashed line makes sense. People should be able to see what politicians are saying. There’s nothing at all controversial about that view. However, Zuckerberg is using nods to lofty ideals to essentially argue that politicians should be allowed to pay Facebook for the unfettered right to lie to its users. He pretends he's trying to adhere to principles that help a functioning democracy -- keep everyone informed! -- when in fact he's arguing for spreading misinformation. This rhetorical sleight of hand is at the core of Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy and illustrates why he should no longer be given the benefit of the doubt in considering the motives behind his actions.
The core idea behind Zuckerberg’s view, if taken at face value, is a belief in the so-called “marketplace of ideas.”
The concept of the marketplace of ideas dates back hundreds of years and essentially amounts to a belief that truth will naturally prevail over lies and that the answer to bad speech is more speech. It’s unclear what exactly has inspired Zuckerberg’s “in a democracy…” line, but one place to look might be to the words of Thomas Jefferson, who used his first inaugural address to welcome debate over the fate of the young country itself:
If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
Whatever one’s opinion on the concept of a marketplace of ideas may be, Zuckerberg errs in his own calculation. Yes, to its credit, Facebook makes its political ad library available for anyone to search. That’s great, as it does create a bit of transparency that you don’t see with other ad formats. It gives people a chance to look through the thousands of different pieces of ad copy being run by candidates and advocacy organizations. The issue is that contra Jefferson’s disclaimer that reason must be “left free to combat” misinformation, Facebook makes this nearly impossible. If a candidate runs a TV ad containing false information, their opponent’s campaign can push back on that by buying its own ad on the same station. With Facebook ads, that’s not possible. With the microtargeting tools made available to politicians, a campaign could theoretically serve up streams of misinformation, targeted specifically to a subset of voters who’ve been identified as particularly susceptible to such messaging, and that candidate’s opponent would be unable to directly respond by targeting the exact audience getting the misinformation.
Beyond that, Zuckerberg’s belief that what politicians say should be a matter of public record conflict with his own interactions with President Donald Trump.
Asked just moments later in the interview about the content of a secret dinner Zuckerberg, along with Facebook board member and Republican booster Peter Thiel, had with Trump, Zuckerberg demurred and said that he wanted to “respect that it was a private dinner and a private discussion.”
It’s completely valid for people to have an expectation of privacy when it comes to dinners and conversations in their own homes. But these aren’t just two regular people, and it wasn’t a regular home. This was the White House, and the meeting involved the president and a man who controls one of the most powerful information platforms in the world. No one is expecting a verbatim transcript of their conversation, but it would be nice to have a general idea of what topics were discussed, especially after all involved apparently tried to hide that the meeting happened at all. NBC’s Ben Collins noted on Twitter that this seemed completely contradictory to Zuckerberg’s repeated championing of political transparency, to which New York Times writer Charlie Warzel responded, “What i think he's really getting at is the classic idea that privacy is reserved for a select few who reach a protected status.”
Zuckerberg’s repeated pandering to right-wing politicians, his secret meetings with conservative commentators, and his decision to pick and choose who has to play by the rules the company set up should have people worried about the 2020 elections.
Zuckerberg has made the choice to defend Facebook’s ad policies using “freedom of expression” arguments, as is his right to do so. As many have pointed out, freedom of speech should not be confused with freedom of (paid) reach. What’s most galling, however, is the complete lack of consistency in how he’s willing to apply that guiding view to his work. It highlights a thirst for power and a belief that rules of his own making don’t apply to him -- or to politicians he prefers.
Facebook has failed as a marketplace of ideas in part because the platform allows politicians to buy their way into power and pay to elevate misinformation. Zuckerberg’s refusal to grapple with this may make for a very bumpy and chaotic election year.