Recently, on Twitter, I called the Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg the Susan Collins of the internet.
I thought it was the perfect comparison to make between the Silicon Valley boy king and the senator from Maine, who has become well known for saying she’s disturbed and concerned by President Trump’s latest example of awful behaviour and for doing absolutely nothing about it.
Zuckerberg, critics say, does nothing about Trump’s rampages across Facebook while grandly stating that he personally disapproves of some of the toxic and often rule-breaking content that the president posts. (I should be more precise: Zuckerberg says it’s content he disapproves of.)
The problem, of course, is much more complex than the garden-variety fecklessness of Collins, whose power is limited. Zuckerberg has become — unwittingly or not — the digital equivalent of a supercharged enabler because of his enormous power over digital communications that affect billions of people.
While there are many people to blame, social media and especially Facebook will be right at the top of that list for its egregious inability to deal with abusive users like Trump, giving him unfettered access and binding him to no rules.
He is a man — I cannot stress this enough — who cannot be fired. He’s accountable to no one because of that power and also because of his immense wealth as one of the richest people in the history of the human race.
It’s striking then that Zuckerberg has also found time to be the world’s most expensive customer service rep.
As the anger over the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers grew stronger, the situation was further inflamed by postings on Twitter and Facebook from Trump, who said, referencing a racist trope from the 1960s, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
While Twitter forced users reading that tweet to see a notice stating that it glorified violence, Zuckerberg, according to Axios, got on a call with Trump and issued what sounded like a mild personal rebuke, even though he also reminded the president that Facebook does not attach warnings to troubling posts on the platform. Instead, as Zuckerberg noted in a post later, Facebook would take down posts the company believed incited violence.
Protecting free speech
Not this one though, as Zuckerberg told his own employees at a virtual question-and-answer session, in the wake of a virtual walkout by some employees. He faced an angry staff, which is rare at Facebook, where workers have typically been much more docile than at other tech companies. After he told the staff he did “pretty thorough” research on the subject, Zuckerberg said he made the “tough decision” not to take down the president’s post in order to protect free speech.
I would love to hear exactly what research he was referring to, with give-me-a-thesis-on-it detail. But all of this is just more intellectually bereft nonsense from Zuckerberg.
Even without taking into account the history behind Trump’s comment on looting and shooting, it should be obvious that referencing extrajudicial shootings is bad. While Trump denied that is what he did, this post was yet another obvious case of gaslighting by a president who has been around long enough that he should know better.
Zuckerberg often naively wraps himself in the First Amendment, as he cloddishly mixes up complex concepts of free speech with that astonishingly amazing text that focuses on restricting the government (and not companies).
They have weaponised social media. They have weaponised the First Amendment. They have weaponised civic discourse. And they have weaponised, most of all, politics.
The text speaks for itself: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Congress shall make no law. There’s no mention of Facebook, or any other company. And there’s no mention of Mark Zuckerberg, who certainly has the power to rein in speech that violates company rules.
While downplaying this power, Zuckerberg also took time to try to kneecap Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, over that company’s decision to slap warning labels on Trump’s problematic tweets. He used the curious phrase that he did not want the company to be the “arbiter of the truth,” probably because it is a perfectly loaded way to cast Dorsey as censorious.
Dorsey is no such thing. He’s simply trying — after what has been a troubling delay — to clean up Twitter and remove the blanket immunity the platform has been extending Trump for far too long. And on Wednesday, Snap announced it would not promote Trump’s content on Snapchat’s Discover platform, again, just highlighting Zuckerberg’s increasing isolation in his detachment from reality.
More to the point, labelling troubling posts is in line with the kind of action that Twitter and Facebook already take every day as they make myriad editorial decisions — by using much beleaguered human content moderators or technology.
Whether that makes social media companies media companies or not, and whether they should be subject to the same liabilities as others, has also become a hot-button issue, centring on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which absolves tech companies of responsibility for what is posted on their platforms. While Trump has tried a specious executive order to overturn Section 230, and there has been legislation proposed to do so, this is a longer-term debate that we all must have as a nation, involving all the constituencies that are affected.
Until that happens, Facebook has chosen to cosy up to the current administration and presumably will do the same if another comes to power next year. Zuckerberg is playing what is always called the long game, largely because he has seen in his short corporate history that he can get away with almost anything.
In my first column in this space two years ago, titled “The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley,” I tried to describe what had happened with social media companies: “They have weaponised social media. They have weaponised the First Amendment. They have weaponised civic discourse. And they have weaponised, most of all, politics.”
And here we are now without recourse. Because, even if employees, the media and politicians are unsatisfied with how Zuckerberg is handling Trump, it hardly matters since Facebook remains a juggernaut of a stock as it smashes other businesses and grabs market share. It can do this because the stock is at all-time highs and because it is the only game in town.
Eventually that will be a problem — especially given the rage that has long lived online is leaping to the streets in cities across the nation. The public’s focus is now, as it should be, centred on the issue of police brutality and racism, but that anger will eventually shift to those entities, including the tech companies, that did far too much to break us apart.
No rules for Trump
And while there are many people to blame, social media and especially Facebook will be right at the top of that list for its egregious inability to deal with abusive users like Trump, giving him unfettered access and binding him to no rules. They fed unlimited amounts of sugar to him and now wonder why he is diabetic and screaming.
Obviously, Zuckerberg is free to do what he wants on Facebook. We are here because this is the way he made it so many years ago at Harvard.
So, fair warning: If you want to try to speak to customer service about these problems, as Trump got to, you’ll probably be on hold for eternity.
— Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing Opinion writer.