Among the myriad roadblocks in the way of sensible democratic discourse in America is the fact that Mark Zuckerberg runs what may be the most powerful communications platform ever assembled.
Nearly 1.5 billion people log on to Facebook every day; of these, approximately 185 million come from the United States and Canada. Because of a lack of quality control, Russian intelligence agencies and other nefarious Trump boosters were able to manipulate the site with lies and conspiracy theories during the 2016 election. To this day, we still have little idea what political toxins are proliferating on Facebook.
Zuckerberg initially called any attempt to connect these unscrupulous practices to the election results “crazy.” But the company eventually admitted to finding as many as 583 million automated accounts. Facebook has finally sought to scrub itself of phony profiles, but it continues to insist that it bears no responsibility for policing its content for lies. Initially, the social-media giant even fought to keep the racist hate-monger Alex Jones on the site despite his horrific slander of so many people—including the parents of the Sandy Hook school-shooting victims—and his calls for the murder of special counsel Robert Mueller. The company has since come to its senses, but John Hegeman, Facebook’s head of News Feed, explained at the time that being false “doesn’t violate the community standards” and termed Jones’s incitements one among many “points of view.” He made these comments at a presentation dedicated to Facebook’s “work to prevent the spread of false news.” A few days later, in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, Zuckerberg went even further and volunteered that, however distasteful he might find it personally, Holocaust denial was also totally cool on Facebook, because “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
One phenomenon that truly does give Zuckerberg the heebie-jeebies, however, is being accused of “liberal bias.” For years, Zuckerberg has been on a personal campaign to convince the purveyors of right-wing disinformation that they have a happy home on Facebook. In July, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith attended an off-the-record meeting between Facebook officials and a group of publishing executives. Roughly half were from right-wing media outfits and voiced that old canard that straight-news publications like The New York Times were “liberal” and needed to be offset with sites that regularly lie in support of politicians like Donald Trump. (Though they didn’t phrase it exactly that way.) Next came an almost three-hour hearing with Zuckerberg before the House Judiciary Committee, in which Republicans continued to complain about the alleged bias against the falsehoods they so often need to tell in order to placate Trump supporters. (Again, they put it a bit differently.) Representative Steve King (R-IA), for instance, wanted to know why Gateway Pundit had seen less traffic recently, presumably because Facebook should be lavishing more attention on the Trump-beloved conspiracy site that has energetically attacked the survivors of the Parkland school shooting. Zuckerberg listened politely, and he may have later consulted right-wing former senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), whom he hired to review his company’s practices, or former George W. Bush adviser Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of US public policy.
The results of working the world’s most important media “ref” were plain to see in July, when Facebook announced its first slate of news segments designed to combat misinformation: Nearly half of the schedule will come from Fox News. “The network leads off coverage first thing in the morning, snagged the prime mid-day spot with a version of ‘Fox News Update’…and will get two weekend time slots,” notes Gizmodo’s A.J. Dellinger. “It’s the only news network that is a part of the Facebook-funded project to have a show on Facebook Watch every day of the week.”
Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that all this right-wing misinformation, which debases and distorts our democracy, just happens—as Fox News has continually demonstrated for the past 22 years—to be tremendously profitable. Zuckerberg has made it appear to be a matter of “trust” between Facebook and conservatives. Back in 2016, he admitted in a post on the site: “I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias.” But he said that he hoped to “hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust.” He also noted that no “news” source drove more interaction on Facebook than Fox News. “It’s not even close,” he added. Sean Hannity’s page alone boasts 3.2 million “likes.”
Hannity, while we’re on the subject, suggested on the air to his friend and confidant Donald Trump that it was “time to reevaluate the press and maybe change the traditional relationship with the press and the White House.” Hannity added, “My message tonight to the press is simple: You guys are done. You’ve been exposed as fake, as having an agenda, as colluding. You’re a fake news organization.” More recently, when CNN’s Jim Acosta tried and failed to get White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to renounce the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people” following threats against the media at a Trump rally, Hannity was inspired to tweet to Acosta that “people see through your lying bullshit for what it is. FAKE NEWS. #CNNSUCKS.”
One would imagine that a strategy of working the refs would rest on more subtle forms of persuasion. But we are living in Trump’s world, and for Zuckerberg, who, according to Bloomberg, became the third-wealthiest person in the world in early July, the persistent undermining of democracy’s foundations, both here and abroad, apparently feels like a small price to pay to amass an $80 billion fortune.