Small Policy Tweaks Won’t Fix Facebook

Attendees walk past a Facebook logo at the company’s developers conference in San Jose, Calif., April 30, 2019. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The social-media giant’s immediate problem may be Elizabeth Warren, but its long-term problems are deeper and entirely internal.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, insists that his company will not act as a proxy censor for the world’s governments — that it has neither the capacity nor the legitimacy to do so, and that attempting it would constitute an improper exercise of corporate power. “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” he writes. With exceptions, of course: “We don’t allow content if there’s a risk of real-world harm, and we don’t allow voter suppression.”

Zuckerberg’s attempt to position Facebook as a kind of night watchman looking after community safety rather than a censor cannot bear very much scrutiny. Private companies of course exercise editorial judgment of politicians and the news in our democracy constantly — the New York Times, for example, is a private company, and it will not simply repeat every claim it receives or print every political ad somebody wants to pay for. ABC, HarperCollins, National Review — everybody makes decisions about content, and those decisions are made based on a combination of ethical, intellectual, and commercial considerations.

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There’s no avoiding it.

Facebook already has certain editorial functions pressed upon it by governments in the United States and abroad, and those are substantial. The free-speech culture and legal regime of the United States is unusual to the point of being effectively unique, and even the liberal democracies of Western Europe are much more aggressive in matters of explicit state censorship. The anything-goes rhetoric of the early days of the Internet is almost entirely a thing of the past: Facebook could, in theory, be a platform permitting a very wide range of communication, intervening only in extraordinary circumstances, e.g. the publication of child pornography or schematics for nuclear weapons. But governments, especially European governments, will not allow it to be that. Neither will the hysterically conformist culture of these United States circa 2019. “Information wants to be free,” the techno-utopians used to say. But very few people actually want information to be free. And Facebook’s management is no less shaped by the homogeneity-enforcing culture of tribal imperative than is any other similar company’s. This is incomprehensible to Zuckerberg and other men of his kind for the same reason fish don’t know what water is.

Facebook is not exactly a publisher and not exactly not a publisher; Zuckerberg and his team wish to avoid admitting that what Facebook does is at least partly editorial in character, because such a confession would bring with it responsibilities (and, possibly, liabilities) that Facebook does not wish to take on. The rhetoric of “safety” must be understood as an intellectual dodge and nothing more, a way for Facebook to enjoy the desultory exercise of editorial powers without taking on more editorial responsibilities. The enforcement of such nonempirical standards as taste and judgment implies a kind of cultural and aesthetic hierarchy that Silicon Valley’s ruling class embraces ruthlessly but will never admit to countenancing. Hence the tech moguls’ confused attitude toward everything from the enjoyment of vast wealth to the urgent question of free speech. In both cases, tech executives (who, for such powerful men, are remarkably easy to bully) are working backward from their own social comfort to corporate policy.

That much is obvious from Facebook’s own peculiar selectivity. The figures that Facebook and other social-media companies have blacklisted include most prominently gadflies and media entrepreneurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer — who are straight-up dopes, rodeo clowns rather than storm troopers. These people are not excluded from Facebook because they present a danger to anything other than good taste; they are excluded because they are unpopular — or, to be more precise, because they are unfashionable. Hosting Milo Yiannopoulos on your site is an offense against fashion and the community of shared taste — he’s a Nickelback T-shirt worn unironically. His function is purely semiotic, and objections to him are hardly rooted in scrupulosity about matters of fact or logic. Why do you think the Washington Post prints paeans to science and horoscopes in the same newspaper? The animating energy in these matters comes from social allegiance, not from the careful application of reason.

For comparison, consider the parallel cases of Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. Facebook was finally shamed into banishing Farrakhan on tit-for-tat grounds, inasmuch as his racism and anti-Semitism are more plain and more consequential than whatever prejudices might be reasonably attributed to, say, Alex Jones or Gavin McInnes, crackpots and bigots though they may be. (In spite of his insistence to the contrary, I am not entirely convinced that McInnes’s shtick is not in fact a kind of Andy Kaufman performance gone rancid, though I do not doubt the sincerity of his anti-feminism or wish to minimize his advocacy of political violence.) The Reverend Sharpton’s views are only slightly if at all less odious than Farrakhan’s, and he is one of the handful of political communicators in American public life whose rhetorical excesses have been very closely linked to murderous political violence, his racist and anti-Semitic provocations having preceded the Crown Heights riots and the massacre at Freddy’s Fashion Mart. But he remains welcome in polite society, and it is impossible to imagine Facebook’s excluding an MSNBC host.

(I should note here that I have appeared alongside both McInnes and Sharpton on television panels and that I am one of those nefarious right-wingers Zuckerberg has consulted to the consternation of so-called liberals who take a cooties-dominated view of conversation.)

Alex Jones believes, or pretends to believe, absurd things. He traffics in lies, and that trafficking sometimes has real-world consequences. But, again, consider parallel cases: Both Lena Dunham and Rolling Stone magazine have published politically motivated rape hoaxes, and those fabrications had real-world consequences, too. Is it possible to imagine Lena Dunham or Rolling Stone being given the Alex Jones treatment by Facebook? To be designated a danger? To ask the question is to answer it. The matter at hand is not a question of safety but relates rather to the totemic and symbolic nature of what it is that is really happening on Facebook and Twitter. Lena Dunham’s fabrications do not push the buttons of nice California progressives in the same way Alex Jones’s do, and the reasons for that have nothing at all to do with safety.

I don’t make these comparisons to point out hypocrisy. (An obsession with petty hypocrisy indicates an adolescent mind.) I mean instead to draw attention to something else entirely: that Zuckerberg and his colleagues do not actually understand their own product or the role Facebook and other social-media platforms actually play in political life in the United States — beginning with the fact that our political discourse is only incidentally about politics.

On the front end, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are trivial as technological achievements. The interesting part of Facebook largely remains invisible to its users. But crude as the social-media interfaces may be, they intersect in very powerful ways with cultural currents that are experienced at the moment as extraordinarily urgent, though the long-term durability of that urgency is far from certain. (Zuckerberg et al. surely have learned from the examples of their commercial antecedents that it is possible for a product to be simultaneously addictive and boring, as all addictions ultimately are, and that the market position of such products must be perilous.)

The ironies are titanic: By offering to connect everyone to everyone, social media has created a new kind of loneliness; by offering a democratized platform for speech it reveals how little of interest most of the demos has to say. The genius of Facebook and Twitter is in exploiting natural and nearly universal human anxieties about social status by quantifying that status and publicizing it, thereby fusing it with the online identities of social-media users. It is for this reason that deplatforming campaigns (including the much-discussed one against me) are almost always described in terms of status: The objection to the New York Times hiring a Bret Stephens or a Bari Weiss is that those voices are elevated by association with a prestigious institution, and, because status is a zero-sum game, those who see themselves as rivals (enemies, really) of those voices must thereby feel diminished.

Facebook, properly understood, is a kind of basketball court or baseball diamond, a field of play in the game of status-seeking. People do not go to Facebook or Twitter to learn about the world or to engage in productive and intelligent conversation with people who see the it differently. In fact, as I show at some length in The Smallest Minority, my book on the poisoning of public discourse by social media, the very structure of the status competition precludes the emergence of fruitful discourse on social media because the respect necessary to respectful exchange is itself status-conferring and hence of negative value in the game at hand. That is why sneering, intellectual dishonesty, lies, insults, ad hominem, etc. are the ruling modes of communication on social media. They are status-lowering, and status-lowering strategies work pretty well in a status game. (Ask President Donald J. Trump about that, if it is not obvious enough to you.)

My own brief interactions with Zuckerberg left me with the impression that he is both intelligent and earnest but also both politically and culturally naïve. He faces great difficulty as he and his team attempt to negotiate the political realities of Washington — where Democrats blame Facebook for the defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 as a means of psychologically absolving themselves of their own culpable incompetence — and the even more challenging environments in Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, Beijing, etc. Part of that difficulty is rooted in a sentimental inability to admit what Facebook has become, which is not what Zuckerberg et al. had intended it to be. At least as far as it touches political discourse, Facebook is not a means of connecting people and enabling relationships. It is a vast online role-playing game played by mediocrities who do not even quite understand what it is they are so angry about and why their daily acts of social-media theater fail to provide the catharsis they desire, leaving them instead only more agitated, anxious, and despairing.

Which is to say, fixing what’s wrong with Facebook must begin with conceptual reform and a new spirit of intellectual forthrightness that the company’s executives so far have not managed to muster, however good their intentions. A few policy tweaks, no matter how clever, are not going to get it done. Facebook’s short-term problem may be Elizabeth Warren, but Facebook’s long-term problem is Facebook.

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