Like Mark Zuckerberg, I defend freedom of expression. Two days ago, I wrote this post about the value of hearing many voices, about history’s lessons regarding the protection of speech.
But Donald Trump’s unfettered use of Facebook to sow division and encourage violence is not a matter of freedom of expression. There is no requirement that Facebook be his platform for noxious speech. This is a question of what Facebook stands for and what Mark Zuckerberg stands for. As I have asked before, what is Facebook’s North Star? Why does it exist?
Now is the moment for Facebook to convene its new Oversight Board — or for that board to convene itself to deliberate the issues raised and standards required to address this challenge. I don’t care that the systems and bureaucracy are not in place. This is urgent. Get on Zoom. If this independent Board does not meet on this issue of all issues, then why does it exist?
The Board has 20 smart and experienced members: leaders in freedom of expression and human rights, a former prime minister, a former Guardian editor (my friend, Alan Rusbridger), a Nobel prize winner. I would make a bad member of the Board (I was not asked) for if I were there I would be doing just what I am doing here: arguing in public for a public discussion at this critical time to deliberate Facebook’s public responsibility.
The Board isn’t necessary to do that. Facebook’s employees are starting to rise up to make their dissent heard. Zuckerberg can decide on his own or with the help of his Oversight Board, his employees, his users, and the public. But he can no longer not decide.
What is that decision? Perhaps to illustrate the choice it’s easier to take this out of the high-minded realm of freedom of expression and democracy, for that is where the company trips over itself. If Facebook did not exist tomorrow, we would find other ways to express ourselves.
Instead, try thinking of Facebook as a dinner at Mark Zuckerberg’s house. Let’s say that Donald Trump shows up. Donald starts insulting the other guests, shouting that he will bring violence down upon the heads of people who criticize him; blaming the troubles in this country on the Chinese; insulting African-Americans by insisting racists like them; attacking the journalists in the room, shouting that they’re all fake and enemies of the people. What is the host to do — and Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly the host? I would expect a host to ask rude Donald to leave. What are the guests to do? I would leave and never return.
So I repeat: Why does Facebook exist? Does it not have a vision for a better neighborhood, a connected world? How does it ever get there if it does not set an example? Does it have no norms of respectfulness? I don’t mean its statutes, its community standards; I mean an ethic, a moral foundation.
In disclosure, Facebook has contributed to my school to undertake various activities, including supporting others’ work around disinformation (I receive nothing personally from Facebook). I advocate that the news industry should work with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other technology companies because I do not believe we can go our own way anymore; that is the path to obscurity. I defend the platforms against ill-conceived regulation for I worry about its impact on the net and our freedoms there. I think of myself as a defender of speech and thus a friend of the internet. Others call me a friend of the platforms. OK, then, friends tell friends when they’re screwing up. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it now.
Facebook: It is time to listen to friends and foes and reconsider what you are here to do. It is time to stop hiding behind freedom of expression, especially as Donald Trump threatens that very freedom. It is time to have the courage to stand for something. What do you stand for?
I was glad that Medium killed an ill-informed post about COVID by an armchair epidemiologist. I support Twitter’s decisions to begin to add warnings to, not promote, and add fact-checking to Donald Trump’s tweets. Those are just starts, but they are starts. I will not let Google off the hook, for YouTube has much to do as well.
Facebook needs to take a stand against Donald Trump’s racism, incitement, and lies. It cannot stand apart any longer. Our nation is burning. Yes, I am saying this now that it’s my nation on fire. Should I have raised my voice sooner and louder when other nations burned: Myanmar, the Philippines? Yes.
What do I want Facebook to do? Not much, actually. I don’t think Facebook should necessarily kill Trump’s account, for Zuckerberg has a point that citizens should see what their head of state is saying. I don’t think the internet is media nor do I believe that Facebook is a publisher or editor responsible for his words; I say it’s pointless to fact-check Trump. What I do want is for Facebook to separate itself from his vile behavior. Facebook should say: We do not agree. We do not approve. We say this is wrong.
If it does not, by its silence and with its power, it endorses what Trump is saying and becomes his willing agent — every bit as much as when a major newspaper quotes Trump’s posts and tweets without telling its users when he is lying and calling on his racist allies, and every bit as much as Republicans enabling him for their ends.
Trump attacked women and you did not protest. Trump went after immigrants and you did not stop him. Trump came for African-Americans and you stood back. Now Trump is coming for you, technology companies. He is attacking Section 230, the best protection we have for the freedom of expression you all say you hold dear. Will you stand up for that and your users? That should be easy. Will you then stand up for your users who are women and immigrants and African-American? What will you stand for?