Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions from Democrats on Capitol Hill last week. He was unable to explain where his company draws the line in its fact-checking policies given that some lies are heavily policed while others are not.
Zuckerberg was already in hot water with leading Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has vowed to break up his social media monopoly. Stung by her criticism of his lax attitude towards misinformation, Zuckerberg warned Facebook employees this summer that a Warren presidency would “suck” for the company and began boosting centrist Pete Buttigieg in an attempt to preserve a status quo that has made him the fifth-richest person in the world and avoid a reckoning. He also promised to fight any future anti-trust actions in court. “Breaking up these companies, whether it's Facebook or Google or Amazon, is not actually going to solve the issues,” Zuckerberg said. “And, you know, it doesn't make election interference less likely. It makes it more likely because now the companies can't coordinate and work together."
Of course, that’s a hard statement to square with reality. When Vladimir Putin wanted to hack the Electoral College, he turned to Facebook. When China wanted to influence elections in Taiwan, they turned to Facebook. When Myanmar Buddhists wanted to organize genocide against Muslims, they turned to Facebook. When the Saudi monarchy wanted to attack the reputation of neighboring states, critical media outlets, and humanitarian organizations, they turned to Facebook. “Facebook has been systemically found at the scene of the crime,” Rep. Gregory Meeks asked during Wednesday’s hearing. “Do you think that’s just a coincidence?”
Remember “too big to fail?” In its current form, Facebook is too big to fix. Its very existence is a clear and present danger to democracy everywhere because Zuckerberg is a monopolist. He commands the American social media landscape by ruthlessly destroying any competitor who will not be bought.
Consider Instagram, which Zuckerberg bought for $1 billion in 2012. A recent Senate report on 2016 election shenanigans found that Instagram was even more effective than Facebook as a means of spreading Russian disinformation and propaganda, “something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony.” According to disinformation watchers, Instagram is now the new frontier for electronic gerrymandering and vote suppression. Another Facebook-owned company, WhatsApp, was “a potent tool for the spread of misinformation and fake news” that boosted the candidacy of neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil last year, according to The Huffington Post.
So yeah, Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp can “coordinate and work together” to prevent election interference – but will they? Have they ever taken effective action against disinformation? Not if the amount of fake news on these sites right now is any indication. The same spammers and hoaxers have simply adapted and overcome tech companies’ efforts to clean up their platforms. “Agents of disinformation have learned that using genuine content — reframed in new and misleading ways — is less likely to get picked up by AI systems,” Claire Wardle says in a new report at First Draft, a website focused on combating disinformation. “In some cases such material is deemed ineligible for fact-checking.”
Rather than fix the enforcement problem, Zuckerberg’s “new rules conveniently solve the Trump campaign's problem with following the old rules,” Judd Legum writes. As a result, Trump campaign chairman Brad Parscale is running dishonest advertisements on Facebook and Instagram without any third-party fact-checking. Even when outside fact-checking takes place, Facebook is happy to remove it in response to the slightest pressure from conservatives. So the two companies are “cooperating and working together,” sure, but there is zero evidence that this is actually making anything better. In fact, Legum reports in his Popular Information newsletter that right wing websites appear to be breaking Facebook’s rules against “inauthentic behavior” on a daily basis with zero consequences.
This leniency is only ever seen going in one direction. Embarrassed by Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, Zuckerberg responded to his fake news problem by systematically shutting down liberal and progressive news blog pages, killing their revenue and effectively shuttering independent sites like Banter Media. Whereas Breitbart has no problem buying the eyeballs of their audience with Mercer family cash, Facebook has squelched traffic to Mother Jones and Daily Kos. While a conservative pressure campaign has succeeded in moderating Facebook’s zeal for post-2016 reforms, with Diamond & Silk bringing their contrived tale of woe to Congress, no similar public relations offensive has occurred on behalf of the once-dominant liberal blogosphere. Zuckerberg has destroyed it with nary a whimper of protest.
All of this underscores the total lack of accountability at Facebook. Zuckerberg likes to call his company a “Fifth Estate” – a term for the alternative press – yet he has studiously avoided all of the responsibilities that come with being a publisher, declining even to acknowledge the negative impact of his policies.
Despite all of this ‘creative destruction,’ fake news promises to be as ubiquitous as ever on Facebook next year. Forty new websites have recently appeared to push a Republican spin on politics in Michigan, for example. Dressed up as hyperlocal blogs, they have the whiff of organized fakery. Whether Zuckerberg decides to care about them depends entirely on how much they pay him to boost their traffic, and his plan to introduce a proprietary cryptocurrency sounds like a great way to accept laundered Russian rubles or Chinese yuan – once again solving a PR problem--namely headlines about foreign election interference--without actually protecting American democracy from malign influence.
Zuckerberg’s effect on traditional media outlets – the “Fourth Estate” – has been just as pernicious. For example, his call for print outlets to invest in web video was a complete fiasco, costing millions of dollars and hundreds of journalism jobs when his video engagement metrics turned out to be a total sham.
“Facebook is not an anomaly in the American media system,” Masha Gessen observes at The New Yorker. “It is precisely the result of rampant profit-seeking, lazy thinking, and a lack of civic responsibility” – a fairly precise summation of Zuckerberg’s garbled answers to questions from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) about his refusal to fact-check political advertisements.
“Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s different from it being—in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”
In other words, Facebook will show us the lies, so that we can judge the politicians and their dark money allies as liars, but they won’t tell us which statements are lies because it’s our individual responsibility to know who is lying. See how that works? It all makes sense to someone for whom power and profit are more important than the republic.
Mark Zuckerberg’s monopoly power has proven intrinsically harmful to democracy. Whether by malice, incompetence or both, he is the greatest threat to self-government and civil order anywhere in the world today – and he refuses to change.