Facebook and Free Speech

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on October 25, 2016

Facebook and Free Speech

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

Facebook and Free Speech
The rise of social media would seem an unmitigated boon for free speech, providing a platform to anyone with an internet connection. But recent news about Facebook illuminates pitfalls that belie that optimistic view.

“Some of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s posts on Facebook have set off an intense debate inside the social media company over the past year,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Some employees argued that “certain posts about banning Muslims from entering the U.S. should be removed for violating the site’s rules on hate speech, according to people familiar with the matter.”

In the end, those employees did not prevail: “The decision to allow Mr. Trump’s posts went all the way to Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who ruled in December that it would be inappropriate to censor the candidate.”

BoingBoing.net reports that Zuckerberg also resisted pressure to oust Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire with eccentric ideas, who supports Trump, from the Facebook board. This month Thiel said he would give $1.25 million to the Trump campaign and super PACs supporting it. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg explained in a leaked internal Facebook post:

I know there are strong views on the election this year both in the US and around the world. We see them play out on Facebook every day. Our community will be stronger for its differences—not only in areas like race and gender, but also in areas like political ideology and religion.

That’s ultimately what Facebook is all about: giving everyone the power to share our experiences, so we can understand each other a bit better and connect us a little closer together.

Well, two cheers for Zuckerberg. Imagine if America’s college administrators, journalists and other culturally influential figures adopted the view that diversity of viewpoint is at least as important as diversity of identity groups.

On second thought, don’t imagine it unless you want to be even more dispirited by reality. Slate published a piece last week titled “Should Silicon Valley Tolerate Peter Thiel?”; the author, Will Oremus, manages only a qualified “yes.” That BoingBoing piece describes Trump as a “white-supremacist/pro-rape presidential candidate” and responds to Zuckerberg’s (and another Thiel associate’s) defense of Thiel: “Presumably, they feel the same way about the millions who believe in the ideology of Osama bin Laden.”

We withhold the third cheer because Zuckerberg is not entirely consistent about all this. The Journal reports that at a January meeting, “a Muslim employee asked how [Zuckerberg] could condone Mr. Trump’s comments”:

Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s call for a ban [on Muslim immigration] did qualify as hate speech, but said the implications of removing them were too drastic, according to two people who attended the meeting.

The story quotes one unidentified employee who elaborated: “Banning a U.S. presidential candidate is not something you do lightly.”

The implication would seem to be that there is one standard for presidential candidates and another for ordinary Facebook users. Had you published exactly the same proposal and somebody complained, Facebook might have censored you.

It’s also unclear exactly where the line would have been drawn. By December, Trump was generally recognized as a major candidate, leading in most Republican primary polls. Would, say, Jim Gilmore or Jim Webb have had the same latitude?

Thiel, similarly, is in a privileged position vis-à-vis Facebook, as the company’s first major outside investor. If, say, a Facebook middle manager were discovered to be supporting the Trump campaign on his own time and with his own money, would Zuckerberg resist the inevitable pressures from within his workforce and protect the manager in the name of diversity?

If you’re a Facebook user with politically incorrect views, the Journal story has some good news:

In a statement provided Wednesday evening, a Facebook spokeswoman said its reviewers consider the context of a post when assessing whether to take it down. “That context can include the value of political discourse,” she said. “Many people are voicing opinions about this particular content and it has become an important part of the conversation around who the next U.S. president will be.”

On Friday, senior members of Facebook’s policy team posted more details on its policy. “In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest—even if they might otherwise violate our standards,” they wrote.

Fortune’s Matthew Ingram suggests the policy shift is the result of a recent kerfuffle “in which Facebook deleted posts containing an iconic Vietnam War image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running down the road naked after her village was bombed”:

Not only did Facebook delete the original image after a Norwegian newspaper editor uploaded it as part of a series on war photography, but the site deleted the editor’s post about the deletion as well. It then blocked his account, and even deleted a post by Norway’s prime minister, who protested Facebook’s censorship of the image.

The social network eventually apologized for the deletions, and said that staffers were compelled to remove the image because it was of a naked child and that it [sic] violated the site’s community standards.

We should note that when we discuss free speech in this context, we are not making an argument about the First Amendment. The Constitution limits only the government’s power; it recognizes no obligation on the part of a private company to permit its customers to speak or publish freely. But the imposition of a corporate monoculture can jeopardize the culture of free speech, even (or especially) if there is no legal recourse.

There is, however, a secondary legal question here. Ingram notes that Facebook insists “it’s not a media company”; in an August piece, he cited “a couple of reasons why”:

One is the risk that it might be forced to pay more attention to issues like free speech and censorship and journalistic integrity than it really wants to, which would be a huge hassle.

Another reason is that tech companies are valued much more highly by investors than media companies, which also helps explain why some media startups, including BuzzFeed, have also tried to argue that they are tech companies. But just saying it doesn’t make it true.

Ingram leaves out a third possible reason—that if Facebook exercises editorial control, it is likelier to be liable for speech-related torts such as defamation, invasion of privacy and copyright infringement. The less it does so, the stronger would be its case that it is a “common carrier,” like a cable-TV or internet-service provider, exempt from such liability.

At any rate, Facebook’s latest moves are at least moderately encouraging. Mark Zuckerberg may not be a free-speech hero, but at least he’s an ally, if only because of the exigencies of running a business with a diverse customer base.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.