by Keaton Weiss
Elizabeth Warren, in her escalating feud with Facebook, recently trolled the social media giant by deliberately posting a fake ad claiming that Mark Zuckerberg had formally endorsed Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The full ad is listed below.
Warren’s point is that Facebook ought to prohibit politicians from posting false political ads on their platform, as days earlier, the Trump campaign posted a dishonest ad about Joe Biden, and his son, and Ukraine, and the prosecutor. She considers the platform’s publishing and distribution of dishonest political speech a dereliction of Facebook’s “responsibility to protect our democracy.”
At first glance, doesn’t she have a point? After all, Facebook has over 2 billion users worldwide, and studies have shown that almost half of Americans get their news from Facebook. Does an organization this big and powerful not have a duty to “protect our democracy?” If Facebook allows influential people to spread deliberately misleading content, will this not poison our body politic? And would their dissemination of untruths not make Facebook, as Warren called them in announcing her ad, a “disinformation-for-profit machine?”
If you’re an avid consumer of establishment media, these are very easy questions to answer. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But you’re wrong. And so is Elizabeth Warren.
First, on the question of whether or not Facebook has a solemn responsibility to, as Warren puts it, “protect our democracy,” the answer is no, they don’t. As a monopolistic tech giant whose communicative powers are unparalleled, they have a responsibility not to protect our democracy by shutting down dishonest, nefarious, or even anti-democratic voices, but to uphold our democracy by allowing everyone to have their voices heard, whether or not Elizabeth Warren, or you, or I, like what they have to say. The person who doesn’t trust the American people to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, investigative journalism from salacious bile, doesn’t have much faith in democracy to begin with. Because in a democracy, we, the people, are free to discuss our political opinions, sort out our differences, and decide collectively, in the form of free and fair elections, the direction of the country. To task a Silicon Valley billionaire with being the arbiter of what is and is not considered legitimate speech is as anti-democratic a position as you could possibly take.
I know a thing or two about this because I, yes, I, have dealt with the Facebook censors before, and am in fact dealing with them right now. I recently was made aware that Facebook is reducing the distribution of this platform’s, Due Dissidence’s, posts, because it found that we had been sharing what they deemed “clickbait.” The example they showed me was our blog post entitled “From ‘BUT HER EMAILS’ to ‘BUT HIS SON’: Why Democrat’s Gaslighting Tactics Won’t Work This Time Either.” They compared this headline to what we all know are classic clickbait headlines like “THIS super food will change your life!” or “Here’s the video Trump DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE!” Our headline was similar to those only in the sense that we capitalized certain words, and some algorithm must have detected that, and deemed our post “clickbait,” even though in our case the decision to capitalize quoted words was obviously an editorial choice not meant to lure in unsuspecting readers, but to emphasize the boorish nature of certain online discourse. Anyway, the larger point is that I, after hours of searching, cannot find a way to contact Facebook to request a manual review of this decision, as it’s obvious that upon such review, the decision would be reversed, as our headline is in no way “clickbait.” But there is no way to contact them, and this is a rampant problem amongst all of these tech giants, be it Uber, Google, or anyone else. They’re unaccountable, not just to “our democracy,” but to us, their own users.
This is why Facebook should conduct itself as a public utility, and be treated as such. Now wait, you say, if they’re considered public utilities, would this not subject them to more regulation by the likes of Elizabeth Warren? Well, yes, in a certain sense, it would. You could perhaps see social media companies subjected to FCC-type oversight. And while this certainly has its pitfalls, it would at least bring some transparency, accountability, and, here’s a novel idea, communication, to their decision making processes as to who gets banned or restricted, and for what reasons, and there would be a transparent appeals process as well. Furthermore, as a public utility, Facebook would be relieved of having to parse whether or not their users (absent established constitutional precedents prohibiting incitement of violence and the like, while importing something like the severe and pervasive harassment standard the Supreme Court established for peer-on-peer harassment) are worthy of using their platform. After all, an electric company can’t cut your power off because they think you’re using it “irresponsibly.” Neither can a phone company or an internet provider. The public utility approach does establish regulation in the sense that it sets the parameters within which Facebook can operate, but in another sense makes the platform more democratic by allowing Facebook and their uses to operate freely within those parameters, and by creating a mechanism by which those who breach those parameters can get in touch with those enforcing them. Warren’s approach, on the other hand, is to pressure these tech companies into policing their own networks, through often mysterious and arbitrary methods. Under her “plan,” nameless, faceless tech bros could simply deem any user’s opinions invalid and unworthy of sharing, and with the click of a button, make said opinions disappear. Which of those dynamics seems more democratic now?
Second, as far as the body politic goes, was it not poisoned by The New York Times when they championed the Iraq War based on what we now know was a total lie? Did NBC not debase the political climate by giving Donald Trump a hit reality show, even after he godfathered the “birther” movement? Or the mainstream media writ large, when they gave Candidate Trump $5 billion in free advertising in the run-up to the 2016 election? Or does none of that count, because in those examples, those doing the poisoning had blue check marks next to their Twitter handles? Are they “disinformation-for-profit” machines any less? Of course not.
It’s clear that what makes Elizabeth Warren and the rest of the Times-reading meritocracy class uncomfortable is the creation and dissemination of political content by those who they themselves have not vetted for their pre-approval. Social media has created a forum in which ordinary people can express themselves to each other in a way that threatens the corporate media’s authority over what they consider to be “legitimate” speech. In their minds, we don’t deserve the power of influence that platforms like Facebook grant us. We haven’t gone to journalism school, we don’t rub elbows with the elites, and we haven’t been hired by any established media institutions to spread the status quo party line, and so who the hell do we think we are to be offering our perspectives on current affairs?
Don’t believe Elizabeth Warren or any other Ivy League elitist type when they tell you that their goal in all of this social media handwringing is to “protect our democracy” from the negative affects of propaganda and disinformation. What they’re really against is the true democratization of information and perspective that social media has birthed. Yes, Facebook should have to answer for their shady practices when it comes to their decisions over who gets to say what, but they should have to answer to us, their 2 billion-plus users, not to the political class and the media establishment whose livelihoods depend on their ability to limit the influence of those outside their control.
Those who actually seek to “protect our democracy” will see to it that the First Amendment is upheld anywhere and everywhere, which includes the social media space, where speech can get a bit rough, and truth can at times be a bit difficult to discern. The heralded media establishment’s record on truth-telling ain’t nothing to write home about either, and letting us underclass slobs have a go at it isn’t a breach of democratic norms, but rather an exercise in truly democratic communication.
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