Mark Zuckerberg can afford to be as irrational as he wants to be. The billions he’s made gives him what the magnificently rich call “f@#k you money.” That’s the sort of wealth that permits them to laugh at we lesser mortals, including the government.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t call him out for spouting nonsense.
Last week, the Facebook founder defiantly declared himself a defender of free speech.
“I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free speech,” Zuckerberg told his audience at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall in the nation’s capital. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is anew kind of force in the world – a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”
Why didn’t anyone laugh at the clownish declaration?
Zuckerberg’s Fifth Estate is the digital equivalent of the mafia.
No, strike that. Facebook and our new digital overlords have it even better than the mafia. They can shake us down with the backing and support of the government.
Consider the following:
Facebook enjoys the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That federal law exempts Facebook from liability for the third-party content it posts. In other words, so long as Facebook merely posts what others write, it cannot be sued for defamation or the infliction of emotional distress. Facebook can publish something it knows to be untrue without legal consequence, a privilege traditional publishers don’t enjoy.
It The New York Times were to publish a piece it knew to be false, it could be sued by someone damaged by the falsehood. Not Facebook.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is, of course, outraged. (She wears her outrage like an outsized scarf; our very own National Scold.) She had her campaign staff place an ad on Facebook. “Breaking News,” it reads. The ad declared that Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook support the re-election of President Trump. Sen. Warren then goes on to state that, of course, the ad isn’t true.
When Madam Scold demanded that Facebook remove the ad as an abhorrent example of “disinformation for profit,” Facebook refused.
The speech is political in character. Facebook believes in free speech, you see. It won’t engage in content-based restrictions on political speech.
Tell that to Alex Jones and Infowars, who have been banned from Facebook and other social media platform. (Yes, I represent Alex Jones and Infowars.) It turns out that Jones and Infowars have been determined by Facebook censors to violate the company’s “community standards.”
But what if Jones wants to support Madam Scold’s presidential nomination, an event, I concede, as unlikely as Warren learning to giggle. Isn’t that political speech?
Of course, it is.
Facebook wants to enjoy the benefits of immunity from suit by operation of federal law while at the same time arrogating to itself to determine what is and is not political. When it likes speech, or, more to the point, profits from speech, the speech is political. But disagree with Zuckerberg or his band of officious censors, and find yourself banned.
How did we permit ourselves to be seduced by this nonsense?
Facebook is a private company, not a branch of the government. It is not obligated to adhere to first amendment standards and is free to engage in content-based discrimination, a practice it engages in with self-conscious zeal. And we the people have no means to compel the company from disclosing its standards, or, to insist that it adhere to first amendment standards.
The result is an habituation to censorship that poses a true and present danger to the first amendment.
Our courts have long protected political speech, holding in case after case that political speech is at the core of what the first amendment protects. But what of hate speech? I heard an appellate court judge just the other day say that social media creates a new judicial imperative to police speech. How easy would it be for courts to say, following Facebook’s lead, that some speech is so lacking in redeeming scientific, artistic, literary value and political value that it is not entitled to protection? Aren’t we on the cusp of concluding that there is speech, call it hate speech, that is unworthy of first amendment protection?
Facebook has made such a declaration. Zukcerberg’s arrogant declaration that social media is the Fifth Estate seeks to give the internet behemoths a constitutional role and significance that is truly shocking. It is an overreach of historic proportions. It should be met with national scorn and outrage.
Amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, I say. Don’t give Facebook impunity to profit by application of secret algorithm to our speech and communications while at the same time giving it impunity to impose its values, its community standards, on the rest of us in a manner that is secret and wholly unaccountable.
If Facebook wants knowingly to publish falsehood, then let it run the gauntlet of civil litigation. In the meantime, if it seeks to enjoy a publicly conferred immunity from suit, then do not permit it to decide what can and cannot be published on its site. Alex Jones has plenty to say about politics. Somehow what he says offends Facebook censors. So much the worse for these censors.
You can put all the lipstick you want on Facebook’s piggishness. At the end of the day the pig still has a name: Mark Zuckerbrg. I’ll defend to the death his right to say “Oink,” but I’ll never be able to shake the scent of his hypocrisy.