Facebook’s Chief of Political Censorship

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Many self-styled “liberals” have been so primed to adore Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the all-female of color “Squad” on the one hand, and despise Mark Zuckerberg and the mostly white barons of Silicon Valley on the other, that seeing A.O.C. point her little finger at a visibly nervous Zuckerberg during a committee hearing on Wednesday has most in the “liberal” bubble still walking on air.

The Boricua firebrand from the Bronx wanted to know why the Facebook CEO is refusing to fact-check the paid political ads on his social media platform. Last week Zuck gave a speech at Georgetown University, defending Facebook’s free speech policy and its reluctance to monitor the factuality of its paid political aids.

I’m no fan of Zuckerberg myself, or even social media in general, but let me quote a part of that speech I think he got exactly right:

In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression. We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.

We saw this when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was unconstitutionally jailed for protesting peacefully. We saw this in the efforts to shut down campus protests against the Vietnam War. We saw this way back when America was deeply polarized about its role in World War I, and the Supreme Court ruled that socialist leader Eugene Debs could be imprisoned for making an anti-war speech.

In the end, all of these decisions were wrong. Pulling back on free expression wasn’t the answer and, in fact, it often ended up hurting the minority views we seek to protect. From where we are now, it seems obvious that, of course, protests for civil rights or against wars should be allowed. Yet the desire to suppress this expression was felt deeply by much of society at the time.

Today, we are in another time of social tension. We face real issues that will take a long time to work through — massive economic transitions from globalization and technology, fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and polarized reactions to greater migration. Many of our issues flow from these changes.

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.

Zuckstick’s been criticized for daring to invoke the names of such civil rights heroes as Dr. King and Debs — two socialist heroes at that, too — in his defense of Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking political ads.

“Zuckerberg is co-opting civil rights history to justify Facebook policies that undermine our democracy,” the head of the D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Vanita Gupta, is quoted as saying in The Guardian.

Maybe so. Maybe the Zucker doesn’t give two shits about King, Debs, or freedom of speech. Maybe this is all a ploy to help right-wing groups take down Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has promised to break up tech companies like Facebook once she’s in the White House. Or maybe it’s all about Libra, Facebook’s planned cryptocurrency, as a liberal friend of my explained to me.

Still, it’s more than a little weird, and depressing, scary even, to see a “Democratic Socialist” congresswoman drag the head of a powerful tech-media corporation and pressure him to control political speech on his platform. Zuckerberg and his company are already being blamed — on the Left and the Right — for “undermin[ing] our democracy.” But is making Zuckerberg the judge of which political speech should be allowed on Facebook really the answer?

“[O]n the one hand, Facebook holds too much sway over politics,” Shaun Cammack writes for Spiked. “But on the other, it should exert more power over political campaigns. The contradiction here is obvious. All this is really saying is that Facebook isn’t wielding its exorbitant power enough in the right direction.”

The “liberals” in the Democratic Party of course want to win in 2020, and to secure the win they want to remove many of the obstacles which kept them from winning in 2016, namely the spread of disinformation across all media, social and mainstream alike. They still blame Hillary Clinton’s “shocking” defeat in the Electoral College on racism, sexism, and lies — not on Hillary’s muddy and bloody career; or her hijacking of the Democratic primary process, which practically secured her nomination over Bernie Sanders before the voting even began; or her lack of appeal to working-class voters of all colors and genders. It wasn’t the truth about Hillary and the centrist-corporatist Democrats that undid her campaign, but the lies spread by Trump and the right-wing — and probably some left-wing lies, too.

And so now these “liberals” are asking Facebook– no, they’re demanding that Facebook monitor the speech in its political ads, rooting out any lies that may harm our fragile democracy. In short, they’re willing to give a billionaire tech titan the role of Head Censor of Political Speech on the most powerful public platform the world has ever known.

“It’s not censorship,” insists my liberal buddy. “It’s about market targeting. It’s about ads.”

In the above clip, you see A.O.C. question Zuckerberg about paid political ads on Facebook which target specific groups with disinformation. “You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in [the] 2020 elections and in the future,” she says — a pretty slippery statement on her part, since she must know, as a member of our very corrupt Congress, that politicians have always been allowed to spread disinformation through political ads, even before Facebook and social media existed — before the TV and the radio were even invented.

As A.O.C. goes on to ask, “I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year” — (is the sitting congresswoman openly playing with the idea of spreading disinformation unless a corporation like Facebook stops her?) — “So under your policy, you know, using Census data as well, could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?”

“No, Congresswoman, you couldn’t,” Zuckerberg answers definitively. “If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that are calling for violence, or could risk imminent physical harm, or voter or Census suppression … we will take that content down.”

A.O.C. then poses another hypothetical, something to the effect of whether Facebook would remove disinformation about a candidate’s voting record. This time Zuckerberg seems to lean away from the question — to his credit, because, again, it shouldn’t be the role of a corporation to fact-check political ads attacking a candidate’s voting record.

Even then, he gives the right answer: “Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer off the top of my head. I think, probably.”

Then comes a ridiculous question from A.O.C.: “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?”

Since ancient Athens, and probably before, the spread of disinformation has always threatened any democracy that values freedom of speech. Because the vote is all-powerful in a democracy, controlling what voters think is crucial to winning their vote, and so history is littered with assholes who spread lies to gain power.

But we can’t rely on any government, even a perfect one, and especially not any corporation, to separate the facts from the lies for us beforehand. That responsibility lies on each individual citizen, who must take in all information, the facts along with the lies, and decide for him or herself what to believe.

This concept of granting each person the right to read and think and say and hear whatever he or she will, used to be a huge part of liberalism. But today’s liberals seem dead set on restricting what people can say and what can be said to them — the very opposite of liberty.

And hence, Zuckerberg’s response to the question: “Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That’s different than being, in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents from seeing you had lied.”

Once again, the asshole has it right.

A.O.C. lying to the voters in her district would be immoral and unethical on her part, and harmful to the healthy functioning of democracy — but so would censorship, and even more so. And so there should be no law against immoral or unethical speech; no law against lying. Of course, we have laws against companies lying in ads about their products, but there’s a huge different, at least to me, between selling a bottle of shampoo and running for Congress, though I’ll admit I may be wrong on that.

And if there’s no law against lying in political speech, then we definitely shouldn’t be pushing a giant tech corporation to scrub political ads for what it deems to be harmful lies.

Maybe A.O.C. wants to volunteer to help the executives at Facebook separate facts from lies. Or maybe she’s going to propose a bipartisan commission to fact-check political ads across all social media. But I don’t trust any political, from any party, to pre-approve what I can or cannot see on the internet.

Plus, I actually prefer that political lies come to me unfiltered. I think it’s important to see what politicians and political groups lie about, and how. It’s good exercise for the bullshit-detecting part of the brain.

What this really comes down to, though, is trust. A.O.C. and the “liberal” Democrats don’t trust you, the average citizen, to be able to tell the difference between the truth and a lie. They’re afraid you’re either too busy, too distracted, too lazy, or just plain too stupid to decide for yourself what to believe, to study all the evidence and reach a sound conclusion, so they want Facebook to decide for you. Facebook can be trusted with properly filtering political information, but not you or me.

In fairness, if Facebook refuses to fact-check paid political advertisements, then, in order to avoid receiving money for lies — because, as the Zuckster put it, “lying is bad” — Facebook should scrap all political advertisements, which only work to boost the more monied campaigns as it is.

“In any case,” says my liberal friend in closing, “I just like that it’s a Millennial showdown. The dude is trying to start his own currency. He arleady has the power. That’s the issue. And at least someone is challenging that.

“And it’s a brown woman. I love that.”

We “woke” Millennials can’t be so blinded by identity politics that we forget a hard fact of human nature, one proven to be true across thousands of years. And the fact is this: that a young pretty brown face will sell your ass down the river just as quick as any white one — and she may not even realize she’s doing it.

Because the road to censorship is paved with good intentions.

 

Featured image: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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