Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Halfway into 2020, the year has already seen significant upheaval – first the Coronavirus pandemic, and then the tragic death of George Floyd making international waves. But it’s not over – the looming presidential election will push an already teetering society into both rage and euphoria, no matter the outcome. The time leading up to such a vote is ripe for narrative control, so it’s no surprise that the question of social media as a conduit for online speech versus agent for change has once again reared its ugly head.
Facebook Follows Twitter’s Lead
In the background of Donald Trump’s recent skirmish with Twitter, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented: “There are clear lines that map to specific harms and damage that can be done where we take down the content. But overall, including compared to some of the other companies, we try to be more on the side of giving people a voice and free expression.” In response to Trump’s chastising of Twitter, Zuckerberg added: “I have to understand what they actually would intend to do, but in general, I think a government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex there.”
While the comments were publicized as “slamming” Twitter’s recent actions, it was evident that Zuckerberg hedged his bets, hoping to avoid similar trouble for his own company while committing to no particular stance. Facebook is under tremendous pressure, however, and it appears to be buckling under that weight.
On June 6, Zuckerberg finally pledged to review Facebook’s content rules. “I know many of you think we should have labeled the President’s posts in some way last week,” he wrote, addressing the fire lit under his derriere after the president posted Facebook messages similar to those that caused trouble with Twitter. Trump questioned the reliability of mail-in ballots, as well as warning that “looting” would lead to “shooting” amid riots following the death of George Floyd. While Facebook has long been under media pressure, it has encountered criticism over the last week from activist groups and Facebook-funded scientists, as well as mutiny by employees over the decision not to take down the Trump messages.
“What bothers me to the core about the way Facebook is talking about this issue is that there is no such thing as freedom of speech on the platform,” said Elizabeth Linder, a former executive with the company and signatory to an angry letter from Facebook employees to Zuckerberg. “Facebook as a company has already decided what speech is allowed or not allowed through its content policies. And to say that the more power you have you can say whatever you want because it’s newsworthy is hugely problematic.”
“I have to say I am finding the contortions we have to go through incredibly hard to stomach,” one employee wrote among the many leaked comments on the site’s internal message board. “All this points to a very high risk of a violent escalation and civil unrest in November and if we fail the test case here, history will not judge us kindly.”
In his announcement, Zuckerberg identified three areas that will be addressed: introducing initiatives to “advance racial justice and voter engagement,” changing the decision-making process regarding controversial content, and specific policies. The latter includes strategies in the areas of:
- “Discussion and threats of state use of force,” as well as content related to “instances of excessive use of police or state force,” and “ongoing civil unrest or violent conflicts.”
- Voter suppression, “taking into account the realities of voting in the midst of a pandemic.”
- Potential options for handling “violating or partially-violating content aside from the binary leave-it-up or take-it-down decisions.” This largely revolves around political content by public officials – namely, Trump.
Coronavirus Was Just the Dress Rehearsal
If you thought that Coronavirus measures were going to be a temporary thing, then Zuckerberg has put that dream to rest, saying that maneuvers taken during the pandemic will be built upon in other areas – first, a “get-out-the-vote” effort ahead of the 2020 election:
“Our efforts will draw on lessons we learned from our successful Covid Information Center in order to make our voting and civic engagement efforts as central as our efforts around Covid recovery. We’ll focus on making sure everyone has access to accurate and authoritative information about voting, as well as building tools to encourage people to register to vote and help them encourage their friends and communities to vote as well.”
The rhetoric is designed to present the illusion that Facebook promotes democracy, but the very fact that the company plans to frame the election in its image – from setting its definition of “voter suppression” to providing approved “authoritative” information – indicates the opposite is true. That Zuckerberg feels it is part of Facebook’s mission to influence civic engagement rather than simply provide a service for friends and acquaintances to keep in touch demonstrates how far Facebook has migrated from the product initially offered to users.
“I believe our platforms can play a positive role in helping to heal the divisions in our society, and I’m committed to making sure our work pulls in this direction,” Zuckerberg wrote, clearly demonstrating his perceived role – shaping society.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.