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Mark Zuckerberg Is Playing for Keeps

The Facebook founder’s latest speech allies him with the authoritarian right

It would be easy to agree with most of what Mark Zuckerberg said in a live-streamed speech about “free expression,” delivered Thursday at Georgetown University. That’s because, although he spoke at length, he actually said very little. We were promised the “most comprehensive take” he’s written about his outlook, and if he delivered, it’s a measure of how he long has strived (until recently) to resemble an apolitical referee who doesn’t reveal — or even possess — his own views and interests. But under his genial talk of democracy, giving people a voice and the First Amendment, he does have those currents of ideology, though they are narrow.

What does it all come down to? Zuckerberg wants to stay rich, and to keep Facebook. That’s it.

Zuckerberg’s utopian vision of an enlightened, uncensored internet offered some striking examples. There was the moment where he revised the story of Facebook’s creation — the original site was for rating the attractiveness of female students at Harvard — to pretend that the network grew out of a lack of different perspectives in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (A military adventure that sparked historically massive protests, for what it’s worth.) He went after the video app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, for suppressing content related to pro-democracy uprisings in Hong Kong; remember, though, that TikTok is a Facebook competitor, and that Zuckerberg is keen to have his platform take over the Chinese market

When he addressed the threat of misleading medical advice, he didn’t point to the scourge of anti-vaccination conspiracy pages, which Facebook tried far too late to crack down on, but the much less prevalent claim that pricking a stroke victim’s finger can alleviate their symptoms. And when he waxed rhapsodic about American values, it was as if to have us forget that Facebook is an international organism connecting 2.7 billion users, that it has already admitted culpability in genocide on the other side of the planet, and that for millions of people, Facebook is the entire internet, a virtual nation-state controlled at the top by a single, unaccountable man.

It so happens that Zuckerberg’s personal desires and corporate defenses are now aligning with the Trumpian right, while hardening him against the populist left. Bernie Sanders wants to break Facebook’s monopolistic grip, echoing frequent calls for antitrust action from Elizabeth Warren, whom Zuckerberg has called an “existential” threat. In response to this pressure, he’s flirted with conservative “thought leaders,” inviting the likes of Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Hugh Hewitt and Lindsey Graham to a series of dinners at one of his homes and agreeing to be interviewed by Dana Perino on Fox News.

The faux concern these figures tend to share is that Facebook is biased against, or even muzzling, their brand of political engagement — which could only be true insofar as they embrace hate speech, misinformation and outright hoaxes as fair weaponry. But in fact, Facebook is happy to host such extremist garbage, having its policies set by top-level Republicans in the D.C. office who fret over their reputation within the party and do whatever they can to appease Trumpworld. The more Facebook bends over backward for this loud and volatile group, the more they demand.

The result is Zuckerberg delivering manifestos against authoritarian governments abroad while cozying up to the one that controls the U.S. In his Georgetown remarks, he rather incredibly dismissed Russia’s interference in the 2016 election as a handful of bots and sock puppets, not a dedicated effort to undermine the process by spreading lies. He also posed it as an issue of anonymity. “The solution is to verify the identities of accounts getting wide distribution and get better at removing fake accounts,” he said. “We now require you to provide a government ID and prove your location if you want to run political ads or a large page. You can still say controversial things, but you have to stand behind them with your real identity and face accountability.”

Well, what possible good does that do us when the Trump campaign is posting campaign ads debunked by third-party fact-checkers, and the company decides that’s fine? These people aren’t anonymous, and they’re openly lying, without consequence. That you can verify some untruth came from the Trump team doesn’t mean it’s not damaging or dangerous — quite the opposite. At his most authentic, and in front of as many people and cameras as you can muster, the president is willing to say anything. That’s the whole problem.

At root, Zuckerberg has little interest in ensuring the quality and reliability of what you see and read on Facebook (except, of course, to nuke any pornography, even as they track your habits in that realm). He believes this material should be vetted, corroborated or debunked by media institutions, refusing to accept that, for lots of users, the social network functions as a newspaper or information source in itself. This can only be a comfort to anti-democratic forces both inside and outside the country, since it means a comfortably long leash for propaganda that subverts reality, drives polarization and erodes public trust.

That Zuckerberg is willing to stand before an audience and distort the infamous history of how Facebook came to exist in the first place signals an indifference to the truth that renders him an automatic ally of the current regime. That dishonesty, he seems to think, is crucial to retaining his concentrated power, as well as the legacy he’d prefer — and it throws a comment toward the end of the speech into a new light. “I’m not always going to be here,” he warned, “and I want to ensure the values of voice and free expression are enshrined deeply into how this company is governed.” 

Really, Mark? You won’t be around forever? Color me skeptical. Because what I heard was the self-justification of a compromised man who will keep doing things his way, and isn’t going anywhere.