Facebook is here to protect free speech

Andrew Marantz, a New Yorker writer who’s written about for instance Mike Cernovitch, talked about Zuckerberg and Facebook and Free Speech on Fresh Air yesterday.

GROSS: There’s a lot of pressure now on social media to prevent smears, hate speech, threats, disinformation, propaganda. And, you know, Facebook is a good example of a company that appears to be trying to deal with it. So what has Facebook done recently to try to cut down on propaganda, disinformation, smears, threats?

MARANTZ: So in one sense, Facebook is doing a lot of stuff. In another sense, they’re kind of running away from their responsibility. Often, something really awful will happen on Facebook. Like, they will add fuel to the fire of Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, or in Sri Lanka, they had to just shut down – essentially, shut down the Internet for a few days because people were inciting so much violence. Now, we can’t lay all of that at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg. Obviously, violence and ethnic strife and all those things existed before the semiconductor did.

But for a long time, the reason I was so obsessed with this ideology of laissez faire – the reason that techno-utopianism is in the subtitle of my book is that when you just believe to your core that everything will be sorted out by the marketplace of ideas in the long run, you’re much more reluctant to do anything in the present to impede people saying anything they want to say. And I think we’ve reached a point now where we really recognize how irresponsible that is. What worries me about Facebook right now is that they do keep kind of falling back on that rhetoric.

I mean, Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech recently at Georgetown University. It was a 40-minute written speech from a lectern with teleprompters. I mean, for someone who doesn’t like being thought of as a politician-like political figure, he really made himself seem sort of analogous to a politician in that setting. And his entire speech was just about freedom of expression. You know, we love freedom of expression. Facebook is here to protect free speech. And it’s the kind of airy abstraction that sounds nice. But in practice, what it’s being used for is to avoid the responsibility that Facebook has to be a responsible gatekeeper, to be a curator of information. It’s essentially being used as a cop-out.

Yep. We saw it just today – they won’t let Kate Smurthwaite run her paid-for promo of her show because the title is “BITCH” but they will let men call her a bitch on Facebook all day long.

GROSS: Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook will continue to take political ads, and it won’t fact-check or reject those ads. He doesn’t see it as their job to do that. And then there was a letter from about 250 Facebook employees offering suggestions to improve the policy on political ads without eliminating them altogether. What was said in that letter?

MARANTZ: It was really specific. You know, these are Facebook employees who know how to speak a language that Facebook executives can understand, so they didn’t lead with a lot of broad, sweeping political statements. They said, here are six things we can do to improve our policies. And, you know, we can reduce the amount of microtargeting that is used by political advertisers. So, yes, maybe they can put up false information, but maybe we shouldn’t give them the tools to be able to target that false information to single moms in Dayton, Ohio, who drink Bulleit Bourbon and go to church on Wednesdays, you know? Again, this is the kind of thing where the executives and Zuckerberg himself really, really seem determined to stay at the level of abstraction and keep the debate focused on, well, do you like free speech or don’t you? And this set of anonymous engineers within the company was willing to say, no, no, no. Let’s drill down on what we’re actually talking about. This isn’t about – I mean, first of all, it’s not about the First Amendment, right? – because Facebook is not the government. But it’s also it’s not about…

GROSS: Because the First Amendment is about government intrusion on speech. It’s not about…

MARANTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: …Private enterprise.

MARANTZ: Yeah. The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. Now, there are people who say that Facebook should be governed more like a public utility, and I think that’s a worthwhile conversation to have. But as of now, Facebook is not a part of the government, and it’s not treated as such. And so rather than retreating to these sort of mottos that could be carved on marble statues, you know, these engineers and sort of activists outside the company are sort of saying, well, let’s talk about what we actually mean and how you’re actually making money by doing these things, rather than, you know, are you for free speech or are you against it? That doesn’t actually describe what’s happening.

No, it doesn’t.

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