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Mau-Mauing Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook’s CEO is facing increasing attacks from Democrats, but the social media giant’s self-professed, high-minded motives hide a deeper truth

by
Liel Leibovitz
June 08, 2020
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2018SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2018SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

I firmly believe that Facebook is a plague, a pox, an engine of illogic, and a servant of all the worst angels of our nature. As the proud holder of a Ph.D. in man-machine interfaces from Columbia University, I have studied social media platforms from their inception—and Facebook has been a particular target of my ire. There are books yet to be written on how gravely Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has injured our political process, mangled our civic society, and ushered in a new and dark era of atomized discourse, one marked by sanctimony, malice, and mistrust.

And yet, if there’s a greater threat to democracy than a speech monopoly growing unaccountably powerful—more than half of American adults currently get their news exclusively from Facebook—it’s a coalition of political party operatives, billionaires, and ideologues launching a campaign to subdue the social network and turn it into a tool to advance their own radical agenda while stifling the speech of anyone who stands in their way.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Consider the evidence.

Earlier this week, Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and reputedly the former president’s mental twin, took to Twitter to name Zuckerberg “one of the biggest threats to democracy in the world today.” He was merely the latest in a string of Democratic Party officials—including Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others—publicly accusing Facebook of aiding and abetting racism and white supremacism by failing to censor President Trump’s posts on the platform, as Twitter, for example, had already done.

“Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in his defense, “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” No private company, he added in a recent TV interview, should ever be given that power or responsibility. After all, asking a social media platform to scrutinize an endless torrent of posts and adjudicate which are worthy of publication would come into conflict with our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech under a private regulatory regime akin to that practiced in China.

Facebook, Zuckerberg concluded, would continue to do what it had always done, allowing everyone to post as they pleased and use their own discretion to determine what’s true and what’s not—just like Americans are accustomed to doing everywhere else, except on certain college campuses.

So why is free speech suddenly controversial? And why are so many prominent politicians and political operatives calling on a conglomerate to censor 300 million Americans?

You may, if you’re in that kind of mood, chalk it all up to the heat of the current political moment. Coming after the death of George Floyd, the president’s missives reminded too many well-meaning Americans of dark times in our nation’s history. Surely, the fight against racism requires strong and uncompromising measures.

Except that this chronology is wrong. The effort to bend Facebook into submission to the whims of Ben Rhodes, Nancy Pelosi, and whatever allies they might choose to do the censoring, did not start this week or this month—and it has nothing to do with opposing racism. It began instead with an attempt to push the Russiagate conspiracy theory—which has been debunked by a series of investigations, including the famous Mueller Report—in the course of which Facebook was depicted as the mighty engine of a Russian disinformation operation that swung the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, based on a few hundred thousand dollars in Russian ad buys.

In retrospect, the Russian ads, which did things like direct Bernie Sanders supporters to Hillary rallies, and posted fake Black Lives Matter ads, seem more like a dumb collegiate prank. Who knew that Facebook ads were so effective?

The irony here, of course, is that if someone wanted to start policing Facebook’s content for misinformation, Russiagate—which captured nearly the entire American media food chain, from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN on down—would be an excellent place to start. But that’s clearly not what Rhodes or Pelosi have in mind. The anti-Facebook pressure campaign is a clear attempt to harness the social media giant into a top-down coalition that already includes virtually all other technology giants—a phalanx single-mindedly dedicated to restoring the Democratic Party’s hold on power.

Speaking in January of this year, for example, Hillary Clinton called Zuckerberg “Trumpian” and “authoritarian”—a strange choice of words for an executive who refuses to use his power to deny others their right to speech. Joe Biden, ever true to his folksy charm, labeled the young mogul “a real problem.” Then, as now, they were demanding that Facebook de-platform the president. And their demands did not occur in a vacuum: As Recode reported around the same time, Silicon Valley is being flooded by big bucks committed to reshaping the tech industry in the Democratic Party’s image. The tech sector’s job is to make sure all of its omnipresent sites, services, and applications are weaponized and mobilized against the president.

To that end, Recode proudly reported some of tech’s most notable names—including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs—have pledged their considerable resources to a wide array of “secret” initiatives designed to replace the Democratic Party’s traditional infrastructure with privately held initiatives that control everything from voter databases to messaging.

These efforts have struck some longtime Democratic operatives as, well, undemocratic. “My problem is when Silicon Valley folks think that they know how to do our jobs better.” Jane Kleeb, the chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party, told Recode. “I would never walk into Google or anywhere else and say, ‘Your model sucks.’ I don’t second-guess them, and I’m asking them not to second-guess us.”

The tech titans, however, in partnership with the Clintons and the Bidens and the other party bigwigs and their expensive hired guns, have little patience for the gripes of Democratic grassroots loyalists. The machine they’re building is too big and too important for that—and transparency has never been the tech industry’s strong suit. Last fall, for example, the Silicon Valley Democratic donor network Mind the Gap, worth as much as $140 million, urged its supporters to keep its operations a secret—a sentiment that flies in the face of many Democratic voters’ concern over the need for campaign finance transparency and opposition to “dark money.”

Erecting a powerful and inscrutable political machine was only step one, though. Step two is unfurling before our eyes, and it involves exerting immense pressure on anyone who refuses to publicly commit to furthering the goals of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party through active censorship of ideas that the party disagrees with—beginning of course with censoring and controlling information in order to drive Donald Trump from office. But there is no sign that the top-down alliance of Democratic operatives and tech titans will end there, or that they will stop at gentle persuasion in order to get their way.

Zuckerberg’s commitment to the simple and basic principle of allowing Facebook members to compete in a free marketplace of ideas was labeled something perilously close to racism by progressive activists who met with Facebook’s CEO, and then swiftly broadcast their disappointment in what appeared to be a well-coordinated press campaign. The activists were “disappointed and stunned by Mark’s incomprehensible explanations for allowing the Trump posts to remain up.” Zuckerberg, read their statement, “did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters. Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook.”

On CNN, Zuckerberg’s clear and principled stance was characterized simply as “inaction.” New York Magazine lambasted Facebook for “treating a moral issue as if it’s a legal one.” It was not surprising that some Facebook employees, uneasy with being portrayed as pawns of a bigoted behemoth, walked out on the job. Facebook’s potential partners felt the pressure, too: One of them, online therapy app Talkspace, canceled an upcoming deal with the social media giant. “We will not support a platform that incites violence, racism, and lies,” Talkspace’s CEO wrote on Twitter.

Other Silicon Valley CEOs were quick to get the message. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon banned a book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson that dared to question the wisdom of coronavirus lockdowns—an article of faith, firmly grounded in the most impeccable science, we were told, until outrage at George Floyd’s death made such precautions unnecessary. Elon Musk responded by tweeting, “Time to break up Amazon! Monopolies are wrong.”

Musk is right. Speech monopolies are wrong—and they are especially dangerous when they threaten to become tools in the hands of a group of highly motivated ideologues who believe that the only views worthy of expression are their own.

Now here’s the thing: Politics, when properly and vigorously practiced, are always about exerting pressures on groups or governments or corporations, which is how progress is made and change achieved. But what we’re seeing here isn’t a righteous campaign for justice; it’s an assault, mounted by very powerful people and bankrolled by billions of dollars, designed to control which ideas can be heard and discussed and which must be suppressed. The goal of this tie-up of billionaires and political operatives is to guarantee that our public sphere—from the White House, the Senate, and the House to media outlets and social apps—is dominated by one party, one voice, and one ideology. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamentally loathsome, creepy, and un-American undertaking.

Like me, you may find President Trump’s sentiments deeply troubling. That’s hardly the issue: Once you’ve ceded control of the nation’s largest news platform to powerful political operatives who are hellbent on deciding which ideas are kosher and which aren’t, don’t be surprised when the speech being suppressed is your own.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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