Editorial: Facebook, Free Speech, and Disinformation

Well, as many of you already know, I left Facebook at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution. But you might not know that I have now resurrected my account on the Facebook social network.

In my first post to my Facebook timeline (and perhaps the only one I am willing to make for quite some time), I write the following:

Yes, after leaving Facebook at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution, and asking Facebook to delete over 13 years’ worth of data it had collected about me, I have decided to set up an account again.

Why? Well, as a social VR/virtual worlds blogger, I want to be able to cover Facebook’s new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, and that apparently will require an account on the Facebook social network to use (it launches in closed beta in early 2020).

So, I am back, but don’t expect me to post a lot, or use this account very much. After the Cambridge Analytica/Trump/Brexit scandal (covered so well by the Netflix documentary The Great Hack), I am very, VERY wary to share a lot of data here for Facebook to strip-mine for profit!

Which leads me (in a roundabout way) to the point of this blogpost. There is an exceptionally well-written, well-reasoned article by Siva Vaidhyanathan on The Guardian newspaper website, titled Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand free speech in the 21st century. Dr. Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. He addresses a recent speech Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave to students at Georgetown University, which has been criticized by many commentators, including Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice:

I strongly urge you to read Dr. Vaidhyanathan’s article yourself, but I did want to quote a few sections that I thought made insightful arguments:

Facebook has three defining attributes that make Facebook Facebook. Its scale of 2.4 billion people uploading content in more than 150 languages make it too big to filter. Its algorithmic design that amplifies content judged to attract attention and interaction (clicks, shares, likes, comments) favors extremism and powerful emotions over rational and measured expression. And the cheap and effective advertising system is monumentally profitable and thus starves other sources of good information of needed revenue.

In his speech Thursday Zuckerberg boasted that the Black Lives Matter movement started on Facebook. It did. But it also almost died there. It jumped to Twitter and thrived. As the internet scholar Zeynep Tufekci has explained, Facebook’s algorithmic system squelched #BlackLivesMatter and other activist movements as it was promoting vapid images like the Ice Bucket Challenge. On Twitter, with much lighter algorithmic amplification, #BlackLivesMatter could hold attention.

Zuckerberg also neglected the fact that the largest Black Lives Matter group on Facebook was hosted by a white man from Australia and was otherwise completely fake.

Zuckerberg wants us to believe that one must be for or against free speech with no nuance, complexity or cultural specificity, despite running a company that’s drowning in complexity. He wants our discussions to be as abstract and idealistic as possible. He wants us not to look too closely at Facebook itself.

The problem of the 21st century is cacophony. Too many people are yelling at the same time. Attentions fracture. Passions erupt. Facts crumble. It’s increasingly hard to deliberate deeply about complex crucial issues with an informed public. We have access to more knowledge yet we can’t think and talk like adults about serious things.

By invoking all the progressive social movements that have found Facebook useful, Zuckerberg tries to hitch his company to their results. But ignoring the Nazis and misogynists who also use Facebook to organize and recruit, he hopes we equate motivation with free speech and democracy.

The thing is, a thriving democracy needs more than motivation, the ability to find and organize like-minded people. Democracies also need deliberation. We have let the institutions that foster discussion among well informed, differently-minded people crumble. Soon all we will have left is Facebook. Look at Myanmar to see how well that works.

This is a perfect encapsulation of what I think is wrong with Facebook. Put simply, Facebook has too much power, and it wields that power in a demonstrably inconsistent fashion when it comes to free speech.

So, informed by past experience, I will severely limit how much information I choose to share on Facebook, and who I choose to befriend. I will restrict when and how often I check Facebook (for example, I will not install the app on my iPhone, and I will only access the Facebook website via a Chrome browser with the highly-recommended F.B. Purity extension added).

And I do not want to live in a world where Facebook has the loudest megaphone. I will continue to pursue and peruse my news from authoritative sources outside Facebook, such as The Guardian. And I will actively promote campaigns such as BreakTheFake, which provide helpful tips for consumers to determine fact from fiction on the Internet.

Social media such as Facebook has been weaponized, and is being used against us. The situation demands that we all become smarter consumers of information. The future absolutely depends on it.