How do people know a lie is a ‘lie’ if tech companies like Facebook do not tell them the truth?
A scathing speech by the American actor has acquired a fresh lease of life following the WSJ report that Facebook India allowed hate speech by BJP MLA in Telangana. Read an abridged version here.
Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth.
And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history – the lie that jews are somehow dangerous. As someone put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, however, delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his. Well, some of these arguments are simply absurd.
First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as “choices … around free expression”. That is ludicrous. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, antisemites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.
Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to “pull back on free expression”. This is utter nonsense. We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant be required to serve him an elegant eightcourse meal? Of course not! The restaurant owner has every legal right and a moral obligation to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies.
Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of “the most repressive societies”. Incredible. This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees. Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.
This is ideological imperialism – six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.
Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a “diversity of ideas”, and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive”, but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down “because I think there are things that different people get wrong”. At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click. One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show “both sides” of the issue. This is madness.
Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
But at a time when two-thirds of the millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible”? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
Fifth, when discussing the difficulty of removing content, Zuckerberg asked “where do you draw the line?” Yes, drawing the line can be difficult. But here’s what he’s really saying: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.
These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world. They could fix these problems if they wanted to.
It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day. We have standards and practices in television and the movies; there are certain things we cannot say or do.
Take the issue of political ads. Fortunately, Twitter finally banned them, and Google is making changes, too. But if you pay them, Facebook will run any “political” ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect.
Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his “solution” to the “Jewish problem”. So, here’s a good standard and practice: Facebook, start factchecking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don’t publish them.
Finally, Zuckerberg said that social media companies should “live up to their responsibilities”, but he’s totally silent about what should happen when they don’t.
In every other industry, you can be sued for the harm you cause. Publishers can be sued for libel, people can be sued for defamation. I’ve been sued many times! I’m being sued right now by someone whose name I won’t mention because he might sue me again! But social media companies are largely protected from liability for the content their users post – no matter how indecent it is.
In his speech, Zuckerberg said that one of his main goals is to “uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible”. Yet our freedoms are not only an end in themselves, they’re also the means to another end – as you say here in the US, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But today these rights are threatened by hate, conspiracies and lies.
Allow me to leave you with a suggestion for a different aim for society. The ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray.
If we make that our aim – if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses – then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression.
(Condensed from a speech the British American actor delivered)