"More than machinery, we need humanity."
‘Who rules here?’
‘The People naturally.’
‘Naturally the people
– Erich Fried, “In the Capital.”
Mark Zuckerberg would like you to know that he is very concerned about threats to free expression and democracy. But you do not need to worry about it, because he is committed to doing something about it! At least that is the message that he hoped to present in a speech he delivered at Georgetown University.
And though Zuckerberg tried his best to argue that Facebook is synonymous with democracy, his speech largely made clear that Facebook is not the solution, but one of the forces exacerbating the problem.
Zuckerberg spoke for well over forty minutes, but the basic argument of his address was quite simple. Namely: Internet platforms like his have given vast numbers of people tools to make themselves heard, that more people expressing themselves is good, and that Facebook is committed to supporting free expression. Zuckerberg acknowledged, repeatedly, that these are contentious times in the US and the world, and he proudly noted that with more than 2 billion users it was inevitable that Facebook would have to face issues with the types of content certain people posted. Though committed to removing content when “it can cause real danger,” Zuckerberg expressed a desire to balance this with an effort to “uphold as wide of a definition of freedom of expression as possible,” being careful not to let the “definition of what is dangerous expand beyond what is absolutely necessary.” Careful to avoid any sort of free-speech absolutism arguments, and noting that Facebook is not bound by the first amendment in the way the government is, Zuckerberg highlighted the steps that Facebook is taking to handle problematic content (AI, verifying the authenticity of accounts, establishing an independent oversight board) while noting that Facebook’s guiding philosophy is to “air on the side of greater expression.” Looking ahead, Zuckerberg outlined three particular looming challenges with which Facebook would have to contend: legal problems deriving from clashing values, the fact that the platforms themselves “won’t always get it right” (“including us”), and the general societal tension at the moment. Yet despite all of the hurdles that he outlined, Zuckerberg remained committed to Facebook’s long-stated goal of bringing people together.
Zuckerberg’s address was breathtaking in its banality. Beyond this it was such an egregious mix of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction as to be almost laughable. At no point did Zuckerberg say anything other than exactly what one would have expected him to say the moment he walked onto the stage. He threw out words like “democracy,” “free expression,” and “progress” so as to sound committed to important values. He quoted Frederick Douglas, repeatedly referred to Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled the imprisonment of Eugene Debs for an anti-war speech during WWI, noted that Black Lives Matter was mentioned for the first time on Facebook, and repeatedly invoked the legacy of the civil rights movement so as to connect Facebook to historic struggles for justice. And he peppered his speech with just enough recognition of Facebook’s failings, along with just enough tepid self-criticism, as to appear remorseful; but not too remorseful, as the overwhelming gist of the speech was that Facebook has done nothing wrong. Early in the speech, after his hasty tour through history, Zuckerberg stated “I’m here today because I believe that we must continue to stand for free expression” – it’s a testament to how well-behaved his audience was that they did not break out into raucous laughter.
After all, from nearly the moment he took the stage, Zuckerberg’s speech was filled with lines and claims that seemed laughable. Near the outset, Zuckerberg re-mythologized the origin story of Facebook, claiming that it had really been an outgrowth of his unease at the beginning of the Iraq War. Looking back to those days of mass protests, Zuckerberg noted, “I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences than maybe it could have gone differently. And those early years shaped my belief that giving more people a voice gives power to the powerless and pushes society to get better over time.” While it is important to remember that the character “Mark Zuckerberg” who appears in the film The Social Network is a fictionalized version of the Mark Zuckerberg who gave the speech at Georgetown, it is still worth noting that the origin story of Facebook has been recounted repeatedly by scholars, journalists, in legal documents, and by Zuckerberg himself – and this “I created it because of the Iraq War” line is a significant departure from the tale that has been previously told. It’s also worth recognizing that this shift works not only to redeem Facebook’s origin story, but Zuckerberg’s own, turning him from a college student who made a “hot or not” site to judge his female classmates into a noble activist concerned about how the Iraq War could have been prevented.
Yet, this attempt to reframe Facebook’s origin story, sets the entire tone for Zuckerberg’s speech, allowing him to cast Facebook as a noble force for good. Though Zuckerberg was smart enough not to say it too definitively, the not-too-subtle suggestion in his repeated references to the civil rights movement is that Facebook would have been there marching alongside Dr. King. This is a point that Zuckerberg drove home much more explicitly in referencing more recent movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter. Zuckerberg highlighted the importance for social movements of having tools with which to get their messages out – especially tools that allow them to push beyond traditional gatekeepers – and he proudly presented Facebook as being such a tool. Granted, Zuckerberg had much less to say about the ways in which racist and misogynistic hatred and bullying have been rife on Facebook. When a social movement that fits in his self-aggrandizing narrative has used Facebook, Zuckerberg is only too eager to claim it as his own, but Zuckerberg is much less eager to acknowledge the ways in which platforms like his reinforce and perpetuate the social forces that these social movements are responding to. But, such a recognition would ruin the story that Zuckerberg wants to tell.
After all, one of the words that Zuckerberg returned to over and over again was “progress,” and he kept coming back to the word in such a way as to make it clear that he was claiming that Facebook is synonymous with progress.
But it isn’t.
And if it really was, Zuckerberg probably would not have found himself compelled to deliver this speech. We are no longer in the moment when Zuckerberg can rely on people seeing Facebook as a force for social progress. Rather, we are in a moment when Facebook is increasingly seen as a nefarious force – and Zuckerberg’s speech was a desperate (and not particularly successful attempt) to get back to the halcyon days of 2012 when Facebook could seem to do no wrong. Of course, Facebook was doing plenty of wrong back then, but before 2016 if you dared critique Facebook you were derided as a technophobe for doing so. It isn’t really that Facebook is being held accountable these days, but that Zuckerberg seems desperately to want to return to the days when it was heretical to even suggest that Facebook should be held accountable.
Nevertheless, Zuckerberg’s comments should be carefully considered. Much of the pre-event press for the speech, framed it as being a sort of manifesto, and though it is may be tempting to dismiss of Zuckerberg’s shtick, it’s worth paying attention to the vision of the world that Zuckerberg put forth. The world is in grim and desperate straits these days, and Facebook bears quite some responsibility for pouring gas on this blaze. Given all that is going on, it is understandable that people find themselves paying attention to things other than Zuckerberg speaking to an audience at Georgetown. Yet one of the lessons from what occurred in 2016 is that we should be paying closer attention to what Facebook (and its brethren) are doing.
If you move beyond the invocations of the civil rights movement, and the predictable defenses of the techno-utopian dream of the Internet, what can be found in Zuckerberg’s speech is a particular vision of democracy. At first glance it is a vision that is all about bringing people together through the power of free expression, and it is one that sounds like it attempts to keep massive companies in their places. Democracy, of course, is not synonymous with harmony, and ensuring that more people have the ability to express themselves freely will certainly lead to some strife. One of the dangers of a commitment to free expression is that misinformation, and false information, will get out there, and spread – but isn’t part of the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to be able to tell truth from fiction? Credit where it’s due, Zuckerberg wasn’t wrong when he said “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% true.” Similarly, many would agree with Zuckerberg when he says “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” Early in his speech Zuckerberg expressed that companies like his represent “a fifth estate alongside the other power structures in society” – and, at least on the surface level, his vision of democracy seems to be one in which these estates work in balance with each other.
Without necessarily endorsing or condemning this vision of democracy, one can still appreciate why some might find it compelling. To give it a generous reading, it is a vision in which tech platforms like Facebook provide a platform for free expression to the citizenry, and in which the power of these companies remains in check because they are “the fifth estate,” not the only estate. Arguably, some close variant of this sort of vision of high-tech democracy is shared by many tech enthusiasts. Likewise, some version of belief in this idea seems to be shared by many of the users of these platforms who may not particularly like Zuckerberg, but who still want to believe that they can use platforms like Facebook to advance the causes in which they believe.
Yet if you chip away this fresh coat of positive-sounding paint that Zuckerberg is pouring all over the edifice of Facebook you find a rather different view of democracy beneath. To put it simply, it is a view in which whatever is good for Facebook is good for democracy, and whatever is bad for Facebook is bad for democracy. Thus, Facebook is able to pull off an impressive bait and switch whereby the failings of the platform (such as dealing with harmful content and misinformation), are reframed as simply being the challenges that one faces while living in a democracy. Therefore, misinformation isn’t really a Facebook problem, it’s a civics and education problem – and by reframing the problem in this way, Facebook doesn’t have to account for the ways in which it has created a platform on which misinformation can spread so easily. Likewise, the contentious position in which Facebook finds itself embroiled is not a situation Facebook has created or exacerbated, but merely a reflection of the fact that Facebook is part of a vibrant democracy which of course goes through contentious periods. What’s more, in a democratic society rife with various gatekeeping institutions, Facebook throws the gates wide so that many people can express themselves. It may be a bit messy, but democracy can be messy!
What’s good for Facebook is good for democracy! That this also happens to be what is good for Facebook financially is just a coincidence!
While it’s true that democracy can be messy, Zuckerberg’s paeans to democracy run in stark contrast to the reality of Facebook. It’s all well and nice for Zuckerberg to talk about Facebook as “the fifth estate” but it’s important to remember the ways in which the “fifth estate” has eviscerated the “fourth estate.” Indeed, an argument can be made that the “fourth estate” is now entirely dependent on the “fifth estate,” while the other three estates have found their power not so much “disrupted” as completely usurped. It just isn’t the case that the estates are functioning in some sort of carefully refined, democratic, dance where power is equitably distributed between them all – rather the “fifth estate” is calling the tune, choreographing the movements, demanding that all the others dance as directed, and exiling any who dare to try to change the song. Taking a swing at the power of the old entrenched estates, Zuckerberg stated “we need to make sure that we are empowering people and not simply reinforcing existing institutions and power structures.” But what this comment elides is that Facebook is the new “power structure” that he is interested in “simply reinforcing,” and he is using appeals to “empowering people” as the cover under which to do this – all the while ignoring the fact that Facebook is quite guilty of “reinforcing existing institutions and power structures” such as racism, misogyny, and capitalism.
Zuckerberg seems profoundly uninterested in there being any sort of action on the part of the other estates to restore any type of balance. After all, that would be bad for Facebook, and what is bad for Facebook is bad for democracy.
When thinking about democracy and Facebook, it is essential to remember that Facebook is a profoundly undemocratic organization. Zuckerberg proudly notes that there are more than 2 billion users on Facebook, but these users have no voice in how the platform is run. All that Facebook users can do is “agree” to the terms that are put forth by Facebook, terms which are purposely constructed in such arcane legalese as to ensure that they are hardly understood, and which can be changed whenever Facebook so desires. Furthermore, even those who do not “agree” to these terms, may still find themselves under the watchful gaze of Facebook (as Zuckerberg admitted in testimony before Congress). True, Facebook knows how to make gestures in a direction that makes it seem as though it is listening to its users (hence Zuckerberg’s announcement of “an independent oversight board”), but rest assured those who sit on such boards will not be picked democratically. As for the legions of individuals who work for Facebook? They are lucky to have the opportunity to work for the company, and internal workplace democracy is not high on Facebook’s agenda. Free expression may be touted as a value that Facebook takes seriously, but it is always free expression with an asterisk, as it is only ever permitted insofar as Facebook allows it – and Facebook reserves the right to revoke this at any moment. Ultimately, Facebook is not a democracy or a republic, it is a kingdom (or a dictatorship) ruled over by Mark Zuckerberg, sometimes he likes to present himself as a benevolent ruler, but he doesn’t particularly like it when all the peons dare to question his divine right.
In Zuckerberg’s speech this tension was on particular display in one of the more galling moments of his address. Turning his attention to China, Zuckerberg warned his listeners of China’s Internet, and of the efforts being made by China to export its high-tech tools to other countries. Framing Facebook’s failure to break into China as some sort of principled stand for justice, Zuckerberg held China up as a dangerous growing menace in order to argue that the choice is clear: either the democratic American Internet (warts and all) represented by Facebook, or the authoritarian Internet of China. Dripping with cultural imperialism, and very thinly veiled racism, Zuckerberg here pulls off a stunning sleight of hand by transmuting criticism of Facebook into an attack on the good old American Internet. Zuckerberg did not literally hug the American flag as he attacked China, but he was certainly metaphorically draping himself in it. While there are certainly legitimate critiques to be made of the use of surveillance technology in China, Zuckerberg’s fear-mongering was more about creating a dangerous foreign “Other” than anything else. It is grotesque, though sadly not surprising, that a speech so filled with references to civil rights struggles should descend into such naked xenophobia. And here Zuckerberg goes beyond simply saying that what’s good for Facebook is what’s good for democracy, he also says that what’s good for Facebook is good for America.
Yet, no matter how much Zuckerberg wants his listeners to think that Facebook is synonymous with democracy, and no matter how much he wants his listeners to believe that what is good for Facebook is good for democracy, his speech ultimately makes it clear that Facebook (and Zuckerberg himself) just isn’t up to the task. Despite the revisionist account that tries to make it seem as though Facebook was inspired by an attempt to right the wrong of the Iraq War Facebook is something that was simply created by people who had no real sense of what a powerful thing they were creating – and who were very slow in understanding the risks inherent in it. More than anything, Zuckerberg appears like a flustered individual desperately trying to assure everyone that he is still in control when it is becoming impossible to deny that he has lost control.
Whenever Mark Zuckerberg, or any tech company CEO, speaks it is worthwhile to be skeptical of their claims. After all, Facebook is hardly the only company that has a stance of “what is good for us is what is good for America.” It is well past time to acknowledge that what is good for Facebook, and what is good for Mark Zuckerberg, is not necessarily what is good for democracy. Luckily, imperfect though they may be, democracy provides some of the tools to address this problem. Mark Zuckerberg getting up and delivering a speech on free expression is not going to solve any of the problems surrounding Facebook. Insofar as Facebook remains a profoundly undemocratic institution it will seek to place its own interests above the genuine interests of democracy. And as long as Facebook remains the fiefdom of a man who thinks that he is a divinely appointed king, Facebook will be unwilling to change.
So it is time to depose this king.
Certainly, getting rid of a king can be messy.
But it’s one of the things you need to do if you really want to have a democracy.