Zuckerberg wants to eat his free-speech cake and have it too

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Facebook’s relationship to speech is complicated. The giant social network routinely takes down hate speech provided it meets certain criteria (although critics say it misses a lot more), along with gratuitous nudity, and other content that breaches its “community standards.” And it hides or “down-ranks” misinformation, although only in certain categories, including anti-vaccination campaigns. But it refuses to do anything about obvious disinformation in political content, including political ads, saying it doesn’t want to be an arbiter of truth. One of the most interesting things about Mark Zuckerberg’s speech Thursday at Georgetown University was listening to the Facebook CEO try to justify these conflicting decisions. The speech, which was livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube and published in the Wall Street Journal, was at times a passionate defense of unfettered free speech, and how it played a crucial role in social movements like the Vietnam War and the civil-rights era.

If nothing else, Zuckerberg’s emotional investment in this idea came through, despite some awkward phrasing (he wrote the speech himself, and wouldn’t let anyone see or edit it because he wanted to “maximize for sincerity,” according to a Facebook source). Zuckerberg warned about a number of countries that are moving to restrict speech, and even trying to censor speech that occurs elsewhere on the internet, and his voice became almost strident as he talked about the repressive regime in China (a market Facebook has repeatedly tried to enter) and the fact that most of the top internet services used to be American, but now six of the top 10 are Chinese. “While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US,” Zuckerberg said. “Is that the internet we want?”

But the Facebook CEO also defended the network’s decision not to fact-check political ads, despite the fact that the Trump campaign has already used its ad campaigns to circulate lies about Joe Biden and his alleged involvement in corruption in Ukraine. “We don’t fact-check political ads, because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg said. “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think It’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” The Facebook founder also noted that similar ads appear on other services, and also run on analog TV networks. “I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true,” Zuckerberg said, despite having just described how the social network routinely takes down or “down-ranks” misinformation of various kinds.

In many ways, as New York Times writer Mike Isaac put it, the Facebook CEO’s speech seemed like “an optimist’s defense of the internet — or the internet as defined by Facebook.” During questioning after the event (where questions were carefully moderated in advance) Zuckerberg admitted the company made a mistake by not acting more quickly in Myanmar, where Facebook was weaponized by anti-Muslim forces as part of a campaign of vicious attacks on the Rohingya community. But he maintained that “people having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a fifth estate alongside the other power structures of society,” and that while he understands the concerns about tech platforms like his and their power, “the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands.”

Jillian York, international director of freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the Facebook CEO’s speech “23 minutes of contradictions, unsubstantiated postulations, and a Cliff Notes version of free speech history.” At one point, Zuckerberg drew a direct line between the freedom fighting of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King and the kind of free expression he says he’s committed to at Facebook. It’s an analogy that likely came as a shock to many of the marginalized groups that have either been censored by the social network or harassed and victimized by it. But as far as Zuckerberg is concerned, we’re all on the same side. “We can continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us, or we can decide the cost is simply too great,” he said. As always when it comes to Facebook, the question is the cost for whom?

Here’s more on Facebook and free speech:

Destroying democracy: In an op-ed in the New York Times, Matt Stoller — a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and the author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, says that tech companies like Facebook are destroying democracy and the free press because “advertising revenue that used to support journalism is now captured by Google and Facebook, and some of that money supports and spreads fake news.”

Lots of pain, little gain: Kurt Wagner notes in a piece for Bloomberg that political ads seem to be more trouble than they are worth for Facebook, since they account for such a tiny portion of the company’s revenue, but spark controversy when they don’t get fact-checked. Alex Stamos, former head of security for Facebook, said on Twitter that not running political ads at all might be a smart decision, “except that the politicians who are loudest about FB’s ad policies have also benefited immensely from the platform and would flip out.”

Oversight not enough: In his speech, Zuckerberg talked about the “oversight board” the social network is planning to create, in which outside advisors would be able to overrule the company’s decisions on content. But in an op-ed for the Harvard Business Review, disinformation researcher and former Facebook staffer Dipayan Ghosh said that the board isn’t an effective solution to the company’s moderation problems because the underlying problem is “the business model behind the company’s platforms itself.”

Calling the shots: Judd Legum, an investigative reporter who publishes a progressive newsletter called Popular Information, says one of the problems with Facebook is the fact that the network bends over backwards to please right-wing groups. The main reason it does this, Legum argues, is that several senior executives at the company are former high-level Republican operatives, including Joel Kaplan, director of global public policy and a former deputy White House chief of staff under president George W. Bush.

Other notable stories:

Despite a memo sent to all New York Times staffers earlier this year by standards editor Phil Corbett, articles in the newspaper routinely fail to link to competitors who have written or broken news stories about similar topics, a Vice report notes. “I think that a big problem is that there are still editors who like…do not get the online etiquette of linking,” one Times employee told Vice. “I wish you great luck in shaming people out of this policy.”

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, a review of nearly 170,000 tweets, plus analysis from expert information warfare researchers, shows that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was the target of what appears to be a coordinated harassment campaign after a tweet on Oct. 4 (since deleted) that set off an international furor about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

Fake news stories about Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau that appear to be designed to weaken his political support continue to circulate on Facebook as the country approaches a national election, according to iPolitics. The stories are posted by a site called The Buffalo Chronicle that pretends to be a newspaper. A spokesman for Facebook said “misinformation does not violate our community standards. We don’t have a rule that says everything you post needs to be true.”

The Miami Herald is partnering with the Miami Foundation to launch an Investigative Journalism Fund that it says will nearly double the size of the paper’s investigative team. The company’s says its goal is to raise $1.5 million for reporting efforts spread over three years, adding two full-time reporters, a data visualization specialist, a videographer and an editor to its existing team. The Herald says it plans to launch the Investigative Journalism Fund as soon as it reaches $500,000 in donations.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is launching an “anti-monopoly fund” with a donation of $10 million, according to a report in the Washington Post. Hughes and the organization he co-chairs, the Economic Security Project, said the fund will be backed by a series of high-profile philanthropies, including the George Soros-financed Open Society Foundations and the Omidyar Network, created by the founder of eBay. The fund will go towards researchers and grassroots groups fighting against monopolies that have too much market power.

New York Times writer Thomas Edsall says Donald Trump is winning the political marketing war because “the technical superiority and sophistication of the president’s digital campaign is a hidden advantage of incumbency.” According to the report, the Trump re-election machine has spent $15.9 million on Facebook and Google advertising this year, more than was spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined.

Marc Benioff, the owner of Time magazine and CEO of Salesforce, writes in an op-ed for Time that “the very technologies and social media platforms that were supposed to bring us together have been used to sow division and undermine our democracy,” and that he bought the news magazine from its previous owners because “we need journalism to elevate humanity.”

There have been high hopes that artificial intelligence might be able to flag disinformation, but two new research reports show that current machine-learning models aren’t yet up to the task of distinguishing false news reports, according to a report from Axios. “If you create for yourself an easy target, you can win at that target,” said MIT professor Regina Barzilay. “But it still doesn’t bring you any closer to separating fake news from real news.”

When ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl asked Donald Trump a question about his Syria strategy at a recent news conference, the president took the opportunity to criticize Karl and his network for running video footage that ABC said showed violence at the border with Turkey, but which turned out to have been filmed in Kentucky. “You shouldn’t be showing buildings blowing up in Kentucky and saying it’s Syria, because that really is fake news,” Trump said.

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