Facebook Versus Democracy

Facebook Versus Democracy

A staff revolt highlights the social media giant’s reactionary politics, which are rooted in both business strategy and ideology.


Facebook, long criticized for facilitating hate speech and incitement all over the world, is finally cracking down on one particular form of incendiary rhetoric: any criticism of Facebook management. The company has an internal message board that mirrors the platform it provides to users, a kind of private Facebook. On that forum, employees have been increasingly critical of senior executives for their cozy relationship with Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders, which often leads the company to violate its own stated policies about disseminating hate speech and political disinformation.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday,

Facebook Inc. is moving to curb internal debate around divisive political and social topics, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday, after a spate of disputes and criticism that has fueled discord among staffers. The steps will include delineating which parts of the company’s internal messaging platform are acceptable for such discussions, and careful moderation of the discussions when they occur, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees at a company meeting, according to a spokesman. Employees shouldn’t have to confront social issues in their day-to-day work unless they want to, the CEO said.

The internal crackdown on speech comes after a period of heightened tension between management and employees. One source of conflict was the repeated actions of head of policy Joel Kaplan, who had once been George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, to carve out special exemptions for right-wing speech even when it violates Facebook’s rules.

An extensive Bloomberg Businessweek report, also published on Thursday, traced the conflict back to Trump’s campaign in 2016. One pivotal incident was Trump’s posting in late May, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Trump posted these sentiments on both Twitter and Facebook. Twitter quickly hid the comments from users, with a note explaining that it broke the terms of service forbidding the glorification of violence. But, as Bloomberg Businessweek notes, “Trump’s post remained on Facebook, sparking a virtual walkout. Employees began criticizing Zuckerberg openly and leaking to the press.”

The magazine goes on to observe that “a flurry of stories appeared over the next two months detailing instances that reinforced the suspicions about the alliance between Facebook and Trump. For instance, media outlets reported that the president had no negative hashtags associated with his name on Instagram, while Joe Biden had lots; that a Facebook employee was fired after complaining that the company seemed to be allowing far-right pundits, such as Diamond and Silk, to break rules about misinformation; and that an investigation into Ben Shapiro, whose site the Daily Wire routinely broke the rules to boost its audience, was thwarted by Kaplan’s policy group.”

In a blog post, Facebook stated its position: “The people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them. There is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it.” According to Bloomberg Businessweek, “The message was clear: We listen to the government in charge.”

The simplest explanation for Facebook management’s actions is business strategy. The Trump administration can target Facebook for regulatory oversight, as it has done with Google. Further, alienating tens of millions of Trump supporters would be bad for Facebook’s bottom line, especially considering that its business model is to maximize the number of users so it can enjoy a near-monopoly on advertising revenue. Trump, in particular, is a massive source of revenue. According to Business Insider, the Trump campaign was by far the biggest political advertiser on Facebook in 2019, spending more than $21 million.

But maximizing profits isn’t the only factor at work. There is a real ideological affinity between some top Facebook managers and Trump. Facebook board member Peter Thiel has been among the most vocal Trump supporters in Silicon Valley and delivered a speech endorsing Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

With Mark Zuckerberg, one might charitably argue that while he might personally believe in democracy, he finds himself in the tragic situation of running a company that profits from the rise of authoritarianism.

But no such efforts to make excuses are necessary with Thiel, since his own words and records have made it clear that he has little use for democracy. Ideologically, Thiel has been all over the map, once styling himself as a libertarian and more recently claiming to be a “national conservative” who believes a strong state is needed to preserve capitalism. But the constant underlying all these shifts has been a strong skepticism toward democracy. As an undergraduate at Stanford in the mid-1980s, he reportedly praised South African apartheid. More recently, he lamented that extending the franchise to women made libertarian economic policy virtually impossible to implement. “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” Thiel wrote.

Last Friday, BuzzFeed News reported that Thiel’s ties to white nationalism were more extensive than previously suspected. According to BuzzFeed, “During the summer of 2016, Thiel hosted a dinner with one of the most influential and vocal white nationalists in modern-day America—a man who has called for the creation of a white ethnostate and played a key role in an effort to mainstream white nationalism as the ‘alt-right.’ And then Thiel emailed the next day to say how much he’d enjoyed his company.” The man was Kevin DeAnna, described by BuzzFeed as “an influential white nationalist who pens pieces for VDare and has written many pieces for other prominent publications in the movement like American Renaissance and Counter-Currents.”

During that period, Thiel’s association with the alt-right was so extensive that another white nationalist was hoping that the Facebook executive could become “our George Soros.” Thiel seems to have pulled back from this group only because of the negative publicity some of them were receiving, particularly after one white nationalist leader, Richard Spencer, was caught on tape shouting “Hail Trump.”

Lately Thiel seems to have lost faith in Trump, especially after the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But he still remains committed to hard-right causes and generously donated to Kris Kobach’s failed bid to win the Republican senatorial nomination in Kansas this year. Kobach is notorious for his hard-line anti-immigration politics and efforts at voter suppression. As The Wichita Eagle notes, “In the last year, Kobach has accused Democrats of using the coronavirus pandemic to push socialism, called for military action against Mexican drug cartels and labeled a US Supreme Court decision that keeps the Trump administration from deporting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children ‘one of its worst decisions of the year.’”

Bloomberg Businessweek suggests that in preparation for a possible Biden presidency, Facebook is preparing to “adapt” to a new political reality, reporting that “in June, Zuckerberg announced he’d rehired Chris Cox, former chief product officer, who’d been active in Democratic politics since leaving Facebook last year.”

But if Facebook does try to cozy up to Democrats the way the company has with Trump, the Biden administration would do well to resist and keep focused on policies to regulate and possibly break up the social media giant. The last few years have shown how dangerous it is to give so much power to figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Joel Kaplan, and Peter Thiel—a hard-won lesson that should guide all future policy. A Biden victory would mean that American democracy has survived despite Facebook. The company shouldn’t be given a second chance to destroy democracy.

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