Why Conservatives Loved Mark Zuckerberg’s Georgetown Speech
Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown last week didn’t go over well with civil rights groups, academics and researchers, Democratic presidential candidates, tech journalists, or tech policy experts. Even leading free speech advocates found it disappointing.
But there was at least one group that really liked it: the American right.
The conservative pundit Ben Shapiro called the Facebook chief’s address “quite good” and his interpretation of free speech “actually correct.” The conspiracy-peddling men’s rights activist and alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich praised it as “a direct rejection of the media’s demand for control over the minds of billions.” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, one of the right’s most outspoken Facebook critics, found the speech “a heartwarming reminder that free expression is the best business model in the world.”
If you took Zuckerberg’s speech at face value, as an earnest defense of free expression in a democratic society, the partisan response would be hard to explain. Yes, many conservatives value the First Amendment, but so do many of the liberals and centrists who found the talk frustrating.
The social network has never been a neutral broker in the marketplace of ideas.
Drawing on U.S. civil rights history, Zuckerberg framed free speech as a force for equality, peppering it with references to Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. Yet it was the nationalist right with whom his words resonated, while modern-day civil rights leaders — including MLK’s daughter, Bernice King — found it disingenuous.
The disconnect makes more sense when you realize that what Zuckerberg was really defending was Facebook’s status quo — the status quo that has helped to make stars of bloggers such as Shapiro, that makes Fox News the platform’s most popular information source, and that may have helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. And it’s already helping his campaign for reelection in 2020. At its core, the social network has never been a neutral broker in the marketplace of ideas.
Yes, it allows political speech from across the spectrum, with exceptions on the margins for content such as blatant hate speech or terrorist propaganda. As with any social platform, there is debate as to what people should be allowed to say on Facebook, and it’s this debate that Zuckerberg highlighted in his speech. He drew a contrast between American-style freedom of expression and Chinese-style speech restrictions, and planted Facebook on the American side. In doing so, he likely closed the book on any thought that it might yet build a censorship tool for the Chinese market, which is an admirable if convenient stand given that it already tried and failed.
But the larger and more trenchant critique of Facebook for years has been that its algorithms tend to amplify some kinds of speech more than others. The company’s News Feed is constantly evolving, but it has persistently optimized for content that generates clicks, likes, views, comments, and other forms of quick-twitch engagement. Though it has tried at various points to emphasize abstract goals such as “high-quality content,” “trusted news sources,” or “time well spent,” its software struggles to draw those sorts of qualitative distinctions based on the crude data inputs available to it. Ultimately, the system’s natural bias toward the sensational tends to win out.
That makes it conducive to messages that generate gut reactions by playing to people’s prejudices and stoking their emotions — even if, or perhaps especially if, they’re not true. In short, it’s a platform tailor-made for a candidate like Trump.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Trump is once again enjoying a significant advantage over Democratic candidates on Facebook, a platform on which he outspent and outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s because Facebook “favors the kind of emotionally charged content that Mr. Trump’s campaign has proved adept at creating,” the Times notes. That’s true not only of the News Feed algorithm, but also Facebook’s advertising system, which boosts ads that it predicts will generate more engagement. From the story:
The divisive themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign tend to generate more engagement than Democrats’ calmer, more policy-focused appeals. Often, the more incendiary the campaign, the further its dollars go.
Case in point: A Trump campaign video alleging without evidence corruption by Joe Biden in Ukraine has been viewed more than 5 million times on Facebook. Some TV networks, including CNN, refused to air the ad, and Biden asked Facebook to take it down. Facebook refused, saying that it will not fact-check political ads.
Zuckerberg’s ostensible defense of freedom of expression on Thursday was in fact at least partly a defense of that controversial policy. “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” he said.
In the abstract, that’s a defensible stance. In the present political moment, it also happens to be music to the ears of the Trump campaign. It’s the sort of policy that Republican leaders in Congress, including McCarthy and Sen. Ted Cruz, have been pressuring Facebook to adopt. Reporting has shown that some of Facebook’s own executives have helped to shape the company’s policy and messaging in ways calculated to appease the right.
That’s why Zuckerberg’s speech fed liberals’ fears that the company will once again look the other way in the face of pro-Trump propaganda campaigns, four years after its platform was manipulated by Russian operatives working to elect Trump and suppress turnout for Clinton.
It didn’t help when Politico reported last week that Zuckerberg has been hosting at his home a series of private meetings with conservative leaders and pundits, including Shapiro and Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson. At Georgetown on Thursday, Zuckerberg sounded very much like a man who’d found common ground with them.
This is not to say Zuckerberg himself is partisan, as some on the left have alleged. He has said in the past that he’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican, though Bloomberg on Monday reported that Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have privately recommended campaign hires to the staff of Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg. Ultimately, Facebook’s business model is predicated on ubiquity, which means it can’t afford to entirely alienate either side of the aisle in the United States or other key markets.
For the time being, however, Facebook appears to have decided that publicly signaling its alignment with Trump and Republicans gives it the best chance of weathering a push for regulation and antitrust action that is being advanced primarily by the left. Among its most vocal critics has been Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren, who has called for the company to be broken up. In a Q and A with Facebook employees that leaked to the Verge earlier this month, Zuckerberg said that an Elizabeth Warren presidency would “suck for us” and that the company would “go to the mat and fight.”
And so, when Zuckerberg raised the specter of an internet dominated by allegedly censorship-friendly Chinese platforms such as TikTok, as opposed to one dominated by Facebook, it struck most liberals as a false choice. What his speech repeatedly sought to obscure is that you can believe in the First Amendment and still believe that Facebook, as currently constituted, is damaging democracy.
Facebook has spent the better part of three years trying to persuade its critics that it has taken to heart the lessons of 2016 — that it does bear some responsibility for how people use its platform, that its systems were too easily manipulated by hoaxsters and foreign agents, and that viral misinformation is a threat to the democratic process. That has raised the ire of Trump, McCarthy, and others on the right who see, or at least claim to see, liberal bias at work in its more proactive approach to content.
On Thursday, Zuckerberg seemed to reassure them that he didn’t really mean it. Heading into 2020, that’s exactly what they wanted to hear.