Undermining Our Principles Is a Facebook Feature, Not a Bug

Earlier this month Facebook announced that independent journalists and media personalities Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Milo Yiannopoulos would be permanently banished from its global community of 2.3 billion people.

While leftists in politics and the media gloat, corporate conservatives have shrugged their shoulders and invoked the magic spell of the market’s invisible hand. Their nonresponse undoubtedly emboldens Facebook to seek the next dissenting voices to silence.

Others have fought back, making a powerful case that access to social media platforms should be included among the range of civil rights that government guarantees equally to all.

It is certainly true that Facebook’s digital de-personing of dissenters makes a mockery of American principles of freedom of speech, press, and assembly. But these bans go further, flouting principles accepted by the entire global community of states.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, echoing our Constitution, declares in Article 18, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 19 sharpens the point, asserting, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

To be clear, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s unabashed attack on this global consensus in support of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and access to media, is a feature of Facebook rather than a bug.

In his recent commencement address at Harvard University, Zuckerberg announced the full scope of his ambition to transcend, even render obsolete, the nation-state. “The great arc of human history,” he explained,  “bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations.” In his view, these forms of community are archaic.

“Progress,” Zuckerberg decreed, “now requires coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.” He explained “the struggle of our time” almost as a holy war between “the forces of freedom, openness, and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism.”

Zuckerberg clearly sees himself at the forefront of this “battle of ideas,” and his model, evidently, is the founder and first ruler of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar. He explains that Augustus, “through a really harsh approach . . . established 200 years of world peace.” Zuckerberg admits that this reign of peace “didn’t come for for free, and [Augustus] had to do certain things.” With such a role model, Zuckerberg clearly has no difficulty rationalizing the digital de-personing of his enemies. It remains to be seen how far he is willing to go in his ideological warfare, and how far we will allow him to go.

Prior to his ambition to be a new Caesar, though, Zuckerberg was a hacker. He successfully hacked the media industry, and he did so by finding a way to hack our brains. Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, expressed remorse that the company has grown so powerful by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.“ Parker explained that Facebook’s first developers focused on the question, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” This project is cynical at best, sinister at worst.

Having discovered how to monopolize our attention, Facebook leveraged its intimate knowledge of the inner workings of our minds to monopolize the media industry. Facebook and Google now combine to control almost 75 percent of the digital ad market. At a time when establishment media companies are going through mass layoffs—and alternative journalists with their new models of citizen journalism are being silenced with impunity—Facebook is achieving massive growth and boasts advertising revenues of $55 billion.

A tiny fraction of Facebook’s revenues in 2016 came from online advertising related to the U.S. presidential election. Still, the political content Facebook allowed significant for American citizens. Revelations that Russian operatives had used Facebook (and its Instagram platform) to sow seeds of anger and division during that campaign continue to produce the bitter fruit of disunity. Since then our politics have been inflamed by accusations of collusion between these Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. Though a special counsel, after an exhaustive two-year investigation, could not sustain the charge of collusion (or, more accurately, criminal conspiracy), partisans are still using the issue to undermine the legitimacy of the 2016 election.

No doubt this destabilization of American politics is just what the Russian hackers intended. But what about the intentions of the one who has hacked our minds, our media, and our democracy—Mark Zuckerberg? His public relations people were both sudden and cryptic in announcing the company’s bans, stating: “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.” It is speculative but relevant to note that the day before the bans, an influential researcher of online disinformation posted a long thread on Twitter demonstrating that Facebook’s Instagram platform was still rife with “russian (sic) propaganda/disinformation.”

It is possible to believe that Zuckerberg was not aware of this troublesome charge, and that the bans were not part of a calculated public relations strategy to distract attention away from it . . . but it does not seem plausible.

Also occurring, coincidentally, the day before Facebook announced these bans was Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Mueller investigation. This testimony underscored the point that Mueller’s report failed to support charges of collusion by the Trump Campaign with Russian operatives. As that charge loses force, a critical fact is coming into focus: the one organization that clearly and unambiguously bears Russian fingerprints during the 2016 presidential election is Facebook.

Zuckerberg may be alarmed by the prospect that Russians used his platform to interfere with American politics and elections. That does not change the fact that he intends to use Facebook as a platform for his own personal interference with American politics and elections.

Again, the use of Facebook to undermine American national politics is a feature, not a bug.

Zuckerberg’s digital de-personing of dissenters clearly amounts to a violation of their civil rights, and should be resisted on these grounds. Further, it makes a mockery of American principles of freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and even the supposed global commitment that all individuals should enjoy equal access to media. Most importantly, though, it represents a significant step toward the realization of Zuckerberg’s stated ambition of creating and leading a global empire. Having demonstrated his power to eliminate dissenting voices, Zuckerberg is well on the way to stigmatizing and silencing those who reject his anti-nationalist principles, and to undermining the authority of nation-states to regulate his business or check his ambitions. The question now is whether American citizens and their so-called leaders can muster the power, or even the will, to stop it.

Photo Credit: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

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About Jason Ross

Jason Ross has a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He is currently at work on a book (with Gordon Lloyd), Slavery and the “Well Constructed Union”: Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Madison’s “Debates. Follow him on Twitter, @Jason_C_Ross.