EDITORIAL: Facebook confuses paid speech and free speech

Who was that young-looking CEO in the navy blue suit, white shirt and baby-blue tie testifying before a congressional committee?

For a billionaire tech titan, he wasn’t very articulate. But, sure enough, it was Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is one of the most successful people in the world, so it can be assumed he is some sort of genius. Which suggests that his apparent difficulty in processing questions from members of Congress and his halting, hollow responses were a facade to blur the impact of the damage Facebook does by refusing to restrict dishonest information it is paid to publish.

The internet mogul didn’t say it in clear declarative sentences, but attentive listeners got his meaning—Facebook’s policy is that political organizations that pay for political ads can say anything they want about anybody and it doesn’t matter if it’s true or false.

Zuckerberg justifies this as an entitlement of the American protections for freedom of speech and of the press without so much as an acknowledgement of the responsibilities that come with those freedoms.

Most other information media—newspapers, television and radio networks and stations and their websites—refuse to publish political ads containing obvious lies. They do this out of a responsibility to avoid misleading their readers, viewers and listeners. But they also do it in recognition of the fact that their speech and press freedoms are conditional on their good-faith efforts to publish the truth and that they can be held accountable in civil courts for libel and defamation.        

Zuckerberg insists Facebook is not a publisher but something that in internet jargon is called a platform and therefore is not responsible for its content.

Congress went along with this nonsensical idea in 1996 and in passing the Communications Decency Act absolved online platforms from responsibility for their content. Those were quaint times when Facebook and its ilk were thought to be unadulterated forces for good.

How’s that working out? Hints can be found in any number of political ads featuring outlandishly false claims that recently appeared on Facebook, including one that, with newslike graphics and copy, asserted presidential candidate Kamala Harris held dog fights in the basement of a pizza restaurant.

Facebook does not just rent its platform for such advertising, it amplifies the ads with its sophisticated algorithms that target audiences.

At the congressional hearing, after Zuckerberg bobbed and weaved, hemmed and hawed, said he didn’t understand questions and that he didn’t have answers “off the top of my head,” a questioner tried to pin him down: Would Facebook fact-check and take down lies—yes or no?

His answer: “I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying.”

Translation: Lies, false accusations and various forms of untruthful political propaganda will continue to be allowed in Facebook political ads. But don’t worry, this is being done for the good of the American people so they can be better informed before voting.

That dose of sanctimony was too much for even some Facebook employees to stomach. A letter posted on Facebook’s internal message board signed by more than 250 of its employees criticized the ad policy, declaring, “Free speech and paid free speech are not the same thing.”

An announcement last week by the head of another internet platform, Twitter, can also be taken as a pointed response to Zuckerberg’s wrapping himself in the cloak of free speech.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said his company would no longer accept paid political advertising. People, including the famous Twitter user in the White House, will still be able to post political messages via tweets, but the messages won’t be amplified in paid ads. Said Dorsey, “Paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

It’s a good statement, but you can strike the “may.” We’re already there. When democracy’s speech rules don’t apply, it can’t handle the likes of Facebook.    


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