Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered a 37-minute speech on Thursday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., outlining his views on free speech, censorship, bias, and social change. Uttering the words “free expression” 25 times throughout the talk, Zuckerberg invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass as free speech champions history looks back on with kind eyes. He called out Russia’s Internet Research Agency for its role in trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, and he took aim at China’s culture of government-mandated censorship. He also presented a case in favor of speech over censorship, and he hyped the company’s recently announced independent Oversight Board meant to weed out political bias.
If you didn’t know much about Facebook’s history or its recent flurry of negative press, you might come away feeling inspired by Zuckerberg’s words. Given the company’s record, however, there’s ample reason to believe that the end result of whatever policies emerge from the Oversight Board will simply advance right-wing causes at the expense of marginalized communities.
Zuckerberg presented his audience with a false choice between free expression and censorship.
At multiple points in the speech, Zuckerberg offered those two options -- and only those two options -- as potential paths for the company. For instance, here’s what he said about current “social tension” involving things like the 2008 financial crisis and reactions to migration:
In the face of these tensions, once again a popular impulse is to pull back from free expression. We’re at another cross-roads. We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us. Or we can decide the cost is simply too great. I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.
Later in the speech, he again presented an open Facebook as a bulwark against threats to democracy, which is both a bit self-important and dubious:
Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable. Some hold the view that since the stakes are so high, they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate and decide what to believe for themselves.
I personally believe this is more dangerous for democracy over the long term than almost any speech. Democracy depends on the idea that we hold each others’ right to express ourselves and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want. You can’t impose tolerance top-down. It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for society that we all feel we’re a part of. That’s how we make progress together.
Critics of Facebook’s anti-harassment policies and its approach to fighting misinformation aren’t calling for an end to free speech, and Zuckerberg isn’t exactly the champion of the cause his speech makes him out to be. The side Zuckerberg repeatedly comes down on -- support for a minimally restrictive code of conduct -- is hardly emblematic of free expression. Facebook, like all major social networks, doesn’t put all people on a level playing field.
So long as algorithms make decisions about what sort of content we should be exposed to, the “right to express ourselves and be heard” Zuckerberg refers to is only a “right” if the algorithm decides it is. To paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Zuckerberg’s core argument for “free expression” while relying on an algorithm to decide whose expression actually gets to be heard is essentially that all voices are equal, but some are more equal than others.
At another point in his speech, Zuckerberg discussed the possibility of banning political ads altogether. Much of the recent debate about Facebook’s policies has revolved around what sorts of ads candidates should be allowed to run. He justified the decision to continue to allow ads in a number of ways, though one stands out:
But political ads are an important part of voice -- especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.
In an op-ed version of his speech for The Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg added the line, “But advertising is an important component of free expression.” Ironically, the same logic of treating advertising as free speech to overcome media favoritism or to counter the disadvantages of not being an incumbent also creates a situation where only wealthy candidates can attain an equal platform. Mine isn’t an argument for or against the concept of political advertising, but it’s simply an attempt to highlight that Zuckerberg’s argument is a weak one.
Zuckerberg doesn’t care about free expression, and neither do his conservative critics.
Zuckerberg did make clear that there are certain things that simply won’t and shouldn’t appear on Facebook.
Some people argue internet platforms should allow all expression protected by the First Amendment, even though the First Amendment explicitly doesn’t apply to companies. I’m proud that our values at Facebook are inspired by the American tradition, which is more supportive of free expression than anywhere else. But even American tradition recognizes that some speech infringes on others’ rights. And still, a strict First Amendment standard might require us to allow terrorist propaganda, bullying young people and more that almost everyone agrees we should stop -- and I certainly do -- as well as content like pornography that would make people uncomfortable using our platforms.
On Twitter, journalist John Stanton make a good point, writing, “Zuckerberg says pornography shouldn’t be on Facebook because it makes a lot of users uncomfortable. Which, fair enough. But I’d imagine racist shit makes, oh say, all the [people of color] Facebook users uncomfortable too.”
Zuckerberg justified those content rules by pointing to the fact that yes, some speech infringes on others’ rights. How exactly does pornography do this? And who decides what constitutes pornography? The site’s existing policy says, “We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content.” It’s not about rights, it’s about sensitivity. Just this morning, BuzzFeed published a report about sex workers whose Instagram accounts have been suspended even though they didn’t break the rules about nudity -- but accounts of people like Kim Kardashian, who has posted actual nude photos on the service, remain up and running. Since Facebook is Instagram’s parent company, it’s worth asking why this happens.
The people being harmed by Facebook’s community guidelines aren’t conservatives whose accounts might get suspended if they share a racist meme or call women by misogynistic slurs. The people harmed are the sex workers being kicked off of Instagram and the people of color getting banned from Facebook for calling out the racism of other users. But it’s not marginalized communities whose advice Zuckerberg seems to be heeding about policy changes, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll be a big part of content policy decisions moving forward.
Facebook has long deferred to conservatives making unfounded claims of bias, and that should worry people who actually believe in free expression.
By giving an exclusive interview to Fox News’ Dana Perino, publishing his speech in the conservative Wall Street Journal’s opinion section, and secretly meeting with far-right figures, Zuckerberg has made it clear that the platform is and has been actively biased in favor of conservatives.
On Thursday, Judd Legum of Popular Information published a detailed and damning piece about three of the biggest decision-makers in Facebook’s Washington, D.C., office. Legum quoted a former Facebook employee who said that “everyone in power is a Republican” and that “decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump.” And Facebook has repeatedly shown us that it’s true.
During Zuckerberg’s speech, he touted the work Facebook does “with independent fact checkers to stop hoaxes that are going viral from spreading.” When the fact-checking program was initially announced, it was made up entirely of non-partisan organizations like Politifact, Snopes, FactCheck.org, The Associated Press, and ABC News. But after conservatives leveled ridiculous accusations that those organizations were biased in favor of liberals, Facebook added partisan outlets like The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller as fact-checkers. The Daily Caller was apparently added at the behest of Facebook Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, one of the Republican operatives profiled in Legum’s article.
When Facebook launched an “independent” audit to root out political bias on the platform, it turned to former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). After more than a year of work, Kyl turned up zero examples of politically motivated bias at Facebook. Instead, Kyl’s report focused on anecdotes and feelings. One such concern was conservatives’ fear that Facebook’s algorithms “prioritize content in ways that suppress their viewpoints.” This is false. Media Matters has conducted multiple studies and found that it is plainly false to suggest that conservative content is being suppressed.
Another conservative concern outlined in Kyl’s report focused on Facebook’s “hate speech” policies:
Although Facebook values free expression, it also wants to ensure that users feel welcome and safe on the platform. To that end, Facebook has established “Community Standards” governing which types of content are prohibited from the platform. … Interviewees’ concerns stemmed both from the notion of having a “hate speech” policy in the first place and from unfair labeling of certain speech as “hate speech.” Interviewees often pointed out the highly subjective nature of determining what constitutes “hate” -- an assessment that may be subject to the biases of content reviewers. The term “hate speech” is itself controversial, insofar as it may incorrectly ascribe motive in many cases. … Interviewees believed that other aspects of Facebook’s Community Standards also disproportionately affect conservative content -- particularly pro-life, socially conservative, and religious content.
That point is notable as it shows just how closely Zuckerberg’s own speech reflected those specific concerns, accepting the framing of content moderation as being at odds with free expression:
American free speech tradition recognizes that some speech can have the effect of restricting others’ right to speak. While American law doesn’t recognize “hate speech” as a category, it does prohibit racial harassment and sexual harassment. We still have a strong culture of free expression even while our laws prohibit discrimination.
But still, people have broad disagreements over what qualifies as hate and shouldn’t be allowed. Some people think our policies don’t prohibit content they think qualifies as hate, while others think what we take down should be a protected form of expression. This area is one of the hardest to get right.
I believe people should be able to use our services to discuss issues they feel strongly about — from religion and immigration to foreign policy and crime. You should even be able to be critical of groups without dehumanizing them.
Will the independent Oversight Board Zuckerberg mentioned in his speech truly be independent, or will it be only nominally “independent” but heavily biased as Kyl’s audit was? If the answer is the latter, marginalized groups and people on the political left should be concerned about the massive amount of power being given to the Oversight Board to decide what is and isn’t acceptable content on the platform. Zuckerberg described the board as having the “power to make final binding decisions about whether content stays up or comes down” across Facebook, noting that he will not be able to personally overturn their decisions. He said that Facebook will “appoint members to this board who have a diversity of views and backgrounds, but who each hold free expression as their paramount value.” Kyl also wrote at the Wall Street Journal that he hopes the board will “reflect accurately the diverse ideological and religious views of Facebook’s user base.” The Oversight Board is, quite obviously, a way for Zuckerberg to insulate himself from criticism about Facebook’s content decisions. It’s a cowardly choice. Based on his repeated acquiescence to the right-wing, it wouldn’t be surprising if the board ends up biased in favor of conservatives eager to impose their values on Facebook’s user base.
If Facebook wants to relax its community guidelines, it’s welcome to do that. Just don’t insult us by claiming this is about freedom of expression when it’s really about business.
Rolling back or even just more selectively enforcing Facebook rules around hate speech will actually reduce the free exchange of ideas on the platform. When a trans person logs on to their Facebook account in the morning and finds their feed filled with anti-trans propaganda, when a woman opens her Facebook app only to discover an inbox stuffed with disgusting sexual advances, when a person of color gets told to go back to where they came from -- it takes a toll. Is it worth it for someone from a marginalized group to share an article advocating for their own human rights only to be subjected to a series of slurs? Is it conducive to healthy dialogue if articles spreading dehumanizing misinformation about a misunderstood and maligned group go viral?
Maybe for some people. Others will feel it chips away at their humanity and dignity, and they will simply decide that it’s not worth it. If every time you walked into a business and a person there told you that you’re a mentally ill freak or that your race is inferior to others, you might stop going to that business, especially if the owner stood idly by shrugging his shoulders. That’s the real risk Zuckerberg is taking with his “free expression” play to the far-right. People, especially those from marginalized groups, will find themselves less and less comfortable making their voices heard at all, effectively silenced through chilled speech.
“I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people,” Zuckerberg said in closing his speech. If that’s true, he’ll stop pandering to conservatives and adopting their disingenuous framing on these issues. But I’m not holding my breath.