The Trump presidency will be remembered as the era when the absurdity of reality outpaced satire. Even with Trump out of the White House, it’s hard for any caricature to be quite as grotesque as what actually happens. On Monday, one of The Onion’s typical attempts to parody the daily news began, “In an effort to curtail the organization’s outsized influence, Facebook announced Monday that it would be implementing new steps to ensure the breakup of the U.S. government before it becomes too powerful.”
But The Onion’s satire turned out to be a pale copy of the actual news of the week, with emerging evidence of Facebook’s promotion in the United States of right-wing zealots, including some who helped egg on the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Equally disturbing was the news that the Australian government had backed down from its own attempt to regulate Facebook after the social media giant flexed its muscles by excluding news from Australian sources from its feeds.
On Sunday, BuzzFeed News reported that in 2019 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally intervened to thwart an attempt to completely exclude Alex Jones, the notorious purveyor of lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and promoter of QAnon-style conspiracy theories.
An internal review by Facebook found that Jones and his program Infowars fomented hate against Muslims and trans people. These posts were flagged by Facebook’s own internal integrity analysts tasked with monitoring hate speech.
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But, as BuzzFeed reports, “Zuckerberg didn’t consider the Infowars founder to be a hate figure, according to a person familiar with the decision, so he overruled his own internal experts and opened a gaping loophole: Facebook would permanently ban Jones and his company—but would not touch posts of praise and support for them from other Facebook users. This meant that Jones’ legions of followers could continue to share his lies across the world’s largest social network.”
Jones and Infowars were major disseminators of the ideas that animated the January 6 failed insurrection. The Department of Justice and the FBI are currently investigating Jones’s possible links to the Capitol rioters.
A Facebook employee told BuzzFeed that Zuckerberg’s intervention served as a shield for right-wing militias that organized in the run-up to the Capitol attack. “Teams should have been reviewing the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, and essentially these people weren’t allowed to,” the employee said.
Zuckerberg is reportedly motivated by his desire to keep in the good graces of the political right, which has terrified the multibillionaire with spurious complaints of bias. These complaints are a transparent effort to work the referee.
The right has won a major victory in its campaign to cow Facebook. To placate his right-wing critics, Zuckerberg elevated some prominent conservatives into positions of power, most notably Joel Kaplan, the vice president of global public policy. Kaplan is a longtime Republican functionary, who participated in the notorious “Brooks Brothers” riot to stop the vote recount in Florida during the 2000 election and later served as deputy chief of staff under George W. Bush.
According to BuzzFeed, in December a Facebook integrity researcher “detailed how right-wing pages, including those for Breitbart and Fox News, had become hubs of discussion filled with death threats and hate speech—in clear violation of Facebook policy. They questioned why the company continued to work with such publications in official capacities.”
Facebook’s decision to violate its own policies in order to indulge right-wing hate speech becomes even more troubling when we consider how resistant the tech giant is to any government regulation. The Australian government discovered how recalcitrant Facebook can be when it proposed a law that would require Facebook and other social networks to split profits with news organizations who provide the content for their sites.
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Facebook responded, as The New York Times reports, by “cut[ting] off news sharing in the country, causing disruption and confusion for millions of Australians.”
Writing in The New Republic, Jacob Silverman compared Facebook to the Mafia, saying the tech company was “acting vengefully toward an entire population over a proposed law that hadn’t even been enacted” and describing its action as “a unilateral act of info-suppression against 11 million Facebook users down under, [which] had reverberating consequences well beyond journalism (health care facilities and emergency services found their pages disabled).”
On Monday, Facebook ended its punishment and came to a compromise with the Australian government whereby the social media company would voluntarily enter into agreement with publishers to share profits. In effect, Facebook is promising to self-regulate in order to stave off government interference. As Silverman notes, “That Facebook will now be allowed to pick and choose which publishers it supports augurs poorly for news organizations, large and (especially) small, that might report critically about the company.”
The agreement with the Australian government leaves Facebook stronger than ever, more able to capriciously decide which sites it wants to promote. Facebook retains the power of a publisher, including the power to censor some stories and promote others, but with few of the responsibilities.
We’ve already seen what Facebook does with its enormous power. It promotes the ideas it thinks serve its interest, including extremist right-wing ideas that lead to violence. Australia lost its major battle with Facebook. But in the United States and elsewhere, the push to regulate Facebook is just starting. For the sake of democracy, those battles have to be won.
Jeet HeerTwitterJeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).