The CEO argues essentially, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but as long as people have a voice (on Facebook) it bends toward justice

I was a 20-year-old college junior when I first signed up for Facebook on 9 February 2004, a date that I will henceforth refer to as The Day Mark Zuckerberg Gave Me a Voice. If this sounds like an absurd premise my parents, siblings and childhood friends who listened to me jabber and moan for the first two decades of my life would certainly be surprised to learn of my retroactive voicelessness then consider the bizarre and fundamental wrongness of Zuckerbergs treatise on free expression.

In the speech at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg presented a defense of Facebook that relied on defining the social media platform as a tool that gives people a voice. He extended this proposition to laughably unsupportable lengths, delivering lines such as, A lot more people now have a voice almost half the world, in all apparent earnestness.

Human beings have voices whether or not they are on Facebook. What Facebook has done for its 2.4bn users is not to give them a voice, but to give them access to an audience and to manipulate and shape what this audience looks like through obscure algorithms that are tuned to maximize behaviors of Facebooks choosing.

This can be difficult to conceptualize, because Facebook has normalized algorithmic timelines, but imagine if after the telephone had been invented, a company had come along and offered everyone free telephone service with certain conditions. Sometimes your phone call would be connected directly to the person you wanted to reach, sometimes it would reach no one and sometimes it would be blasted to hundreds or thousands or even millions of people at once. People with money would be able to pay extra to increase the likelihood that their calls would go through; those without would be stuck trying to game the system, without ever really knowing the rules.

This is what Facebook has done to online communication, and while it has certainly been transformative, it has little to do with free expression, let alone voice.

The arc of Zuckerbergs universe

Zuckerberg cloaked his defense of Facebooks supposed commitment to free expression in the mantle of social movements invoking Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, opposition to the Vietnam war, and #BlackLivesMatter to argue, essentially, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but as long as people have a voice (on Facebook) it bends toward justice.

I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people, he said. And as long as enough of us keep fighting for this, I believe that more peoples voices will eventually help us work through these issues together and write a new chapter in our history where from all of our individual voices and perspectives, we can bring the world closer together.

Zuckerbergs is advancing a very questionable view of history, including his own. (Surely he doesnt think that anyone believes his claim that he set up Facebook in response to campus protests against the Iraq war?) Speech didnt end slavery in the United States. A bloody and protracted war did. We did not over[come] deep polarization after World War I, as he said we fought another war. (A Facebook spokeswoman told the Guardian that this was a reference to the 1919 US supreme court rulings in Schenk vs US and Debs vs US, which does not make this statement make any more sense.)

For a man with immense power and little inclination to exercise it on the most pressing issues of the day lets not forget the time his aversion to picking sides led him to defend the intent of Holocaust deniers I am sure that it is comforting to Zuckerberg to assume that things will work out if he just keeps doing what hes doing. But Im not particularly interested in Zuckerbergs comfort.

The counterargument to this was expressed by Andrew Marantz in a recent episode of On The Media that explored the same basic question as Zuckerberg: how should we handle dangerous speech at a time of increasing white nationalism and violence? Marantz cites the philosopher Richard Rorty and his concept of contingency, which asserts that theres no predetermined arc. The arc is made by people.

If you just take care of making sure that the government doesnt get in peoples way and that it lets them say whatever they want, you cant just sit back and automatically wait for the arc of history to carry you to where you want to go, Marantz said.

Indeed, Zuckerberg need only look around the world today to find strong evidence against his general formulation that more Facebook > more voice > more democracy > more progress. His platforms were enthusiastically embraced by Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and have been adopted widely by those countries populations. Does anyone believe that Modi and Duterte have expanded democracy?

Technical Difficulties

  • This week the Guardian published a series of articles looking at how governments are using artificial intelligence to target the poor, including this devastating account of zombie debt by Virginia Eubanks.

  • I loved Andr Wheelers exploration of the curious case of @emoblackthot.

  • The tedious debate over whether or not Twitter should ban Trump was revived again this week by Senator Kamala Harris, who seems to think appealing to a private platform to censor the president will revive her presidential campaign. Will Oremus already wrote the best argument against this weird liberal fantasy, back in January 2018. I think it still stands up.

Dispatches from Silicon Valley is a weekly column of reporting and analysis from the epicenter of the tech industry. If you have ideas or comments for future dispatches, email me at [email protected]



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