Last week two of Donald Trump's tweets attacking mail-in voting were flagged by Twitter as inaccurate, with a link to clarifying information.
Predictably, President Trump did not take the note well and is now preparing to sign an executive order with the purpose of cracking down on social media companies. In a move that strikes at the very foundation of the Internet, the new order will seek to give the federal government authority over how these platforms moderate user content.
The idea is that Internet platforms receive broad immunity from government regulation with the assumption they are acting in good faith and not attempting to enforce a particular ideology. So if the Trump administration claims—as they have in a draft of the new order—that social media companies are "invoking inconsistent, irrational, and groundless justifications to censor or otherwise punish Americans' speech," then they can justify stepping in to interfere.
Trump has even suggested that he may use his authority to shut down social media platforms like Twitter. It remains to be seen how far reaching this petty retaliation will actually be, or how much Twitter really needs to fear President Trump's latest tantrum, but that hasn't stopped Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from trying to set his company apart as the "free expression" platform that doesn't need government controls because it won't interfere with Trump and his ilk saying whatever they want. As he put it in an interview with CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin, "Compared to some of the other companies, we try to be more on the side of giving people a voice and free expression."
It's a nice sentiment if you ignore the fact that it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. It's only relevant in that it echoes some of the language and ideas that the Trump administration and other reactionary figures in American politics have been using to attack anyone who tries to curtail their dishonesty.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Social networks should not fact-check politicians www.youtube.com
Did Twitter's decision to add a link with clarifying information at the bottom of Trump's misleading tweets do anything to limit anyone's free expression? Did it interfere with Zuckerberg's stated principle that "people should be able to see what politicians say?" Of course not, and Zuckerberg's implied suggestion that Twitter is attempting to be an "arbiter of truth" prompted a response from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who defended the company's decision to to "point out incorrect or disputed information about elections." While it's worth critiquing what Twitter gets things wrong in its efforts to regulate the platform, what their action did in this case—and what it was plainly intended to do—was to mitigate the harm of misinformation being spread for the purposes of undermining the electoral process.
But the fact that the whole situation enraged Donald Trump and kick-started his move against social media companies means that it's time for Zuckerberg to prostrate himself and emphasize Facebook's minimal, hands-off approach to fact-checking, noting that his company has "a program where we work with independent fact checkers."
He didn't mention that those "independent" fact-checkers include Check Your Fact, a subsidiary of the reactionary "news" outlet The Daily Caller, which is infamous for platforming biased, misleading, and white-nationalist material. This is emblematic of Facebook's approach to the political scandals it has dealt with since the 2016 election. Zuckerberg has consistently tried to play both sides of the political aisle in a way that is self-serving and incompatible with a genuine fight against disinformation—particularly in an era when Donald Trump is the head of one of those parties.
This is in keeping with Zuckerberg's established disinterest in monitoring the deceitful content on his company's website. He prefers to allow lies to exist on Facebook and Instagram—and particularly in political ads on Facebook—and to let "the media" sort it out because, as he put it, "political speech is the most scrutinized speech already, by a lot of the media." This obviously ignores the reality that Facebook and other social media platforms control which aspects of "the media" people are exposed to, favoring what keeps people engaged—which is to say, the most sensational content coming from the perspective they already agree with.
Zuckerberg is resistant to the idea that this algorithmic curation of content makes his company accountable for the dangerous, manipulative, and hateful misinformation that it helps to spread. Instead, he says he wants to focus on only catching "the worst of the worst stuff." While we can blithely hope that this approach can at least prevent another Facebook-incited massacres like the recent genocide in Myanmar, it certainly makes it easy for figures like Donald Trump to skirt the truth.
From Facebook's perspective, however, this is part of the advantage. Along with being far easier and cheaper for them to enforce, it allows them to draw a contrast between themselves and other social media companies so that Donald Trump will direct the brunt of his wrath elsewhere. As long as Republicans remain in power in the federal government, it will be in Mark Zuckerberg's interest to play nice with their lies about Joe Biden and Ukraine and their fear-mongering about the terrifying threat of accessible voting.
So if Trump's new executive order calls out "freedom of expression" and claims that social media companies "hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey," then Zuckerberg will respond by selling Facebook as "one of the tech companies that is the most protective of giving people a voice and free expression" with "a special deference to political speech."
As long as it remains within a certain gray area of distortion, it's clearly good for Facebook's business to allow powerful figures like Trump to spread as much dishonesty as they like.
"We are merely exchanging long protein strings. If you can think of a simpler way, I'd like to hear it."Photoshop
Then again, maybe this is all too harsh. Maybe Zuckerberg has a purer motive for wanting to charm the president with this talk. Maybe he senses that—within Trump's inner circle—he has a kindred spirit: someone with dead eyes and waxen skin who could offer him the kind of connection he's been seeking ever since he reinvented digital friendship, someone with whom he could fuse into a single, soulless entity known simply as Jark Kushkerberg. Keep the dream alive, Mark.