Back in the day, before Facebook became a for-profit sewer of disinformation that helped usher a demagogue into the White House, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, openly promoted a brazen philosophy: move fast and break things.
It’s no coincidence that the demagogue in question employed this exact same strategy in his presidential campaign. This is because Donald Trump and Zuckerberg are fundamentally creatures of capitalism, men whose power derives from their ability to capture and monetize attention.
As such, they are de facto business partners. Trump’s political power arises from his ability to fan hatred and division, while Facebook makes a fortune providing him a platform to do so. This isn’t some wild partisan claim. It’s what the data reveals. To wit, the site’s revenues more than doubled, to about $86 billion, in the past four years.
So it’s no wonder that Facebook was reluctant to ban the former president, and instead outsourced the job to its company-appointed Oversight Board, which ruled yesterday to uphold the site’s temporary ban, but also ordered the company to review its decision in six months, ensuring shrieks of protest from all sides.
Early on in the 2016 presidential campaign, stories from news outlets including The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post dominated Facebook. But in the last three months of the 2016 race, the top 20 items produced by propagandists received more attention than the top 20 stories produced by journalists. Seventeen of those stories were pro-Trump, or anti-Clinton — all easily debunked.
There is nothing in the First Amendment that safeguards a corporation’s right to pad its profits by amplifying misinformation.
Why did Facebook allow content it knew to be false, politically motivated and divisive? Because Facebook made money the same way Trump sold MAGA merch: getting gullible, aggrieved people hooked on an IV drip of paranoid fairytales.
Zuckerberg is either so naïve, or so monstrously cynical, that he refused to accept that his company had played a pivotal role in influencing Americans in 2016, even after a cabal of his employees formed their own task force to battle fake news. A top Facebook executive later admitted what everyone knew to be true: without Facebook, Trump would have never become president.
Trump and his troll army — domestic and foreign — spent much of 2020 fomenting the big lie that the election would be rigged against him, often on Facebook.
Still, Zuckerberg refused to ban these lies. In fact, under direct questioning from Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Zuckerberg admitted that his company does nothing to fact-check political advertising. “I think lying is bad,” he explained. But he is still happy to profit from it.
Predictably, after the 2020 election, Trump and his supporters used Facebook to spread stories about imaginary voter fraud, and to whip up violent sentiment against those who sought to ratify Joe Biden as the winner.
None of this came as any surprise to Facebook executives. They knew that “violence and incitement trends” were spiking in the days after the election.
Monetizing anti-democratic lies is not protecting free speech. It’s sedition. Period.
For two months, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms amplified Trump’s incitements. Only after the insurrection of January 6, during which Trump supporters rampaged into the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead, did these companies decide to ban Trump.
The announcement from Facebook’s ballyhooed Oversight Board yesterday is yet another profile in moral courage.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening: Facebook and other tech giants spent years allowing Trump to spread anti-democratic agitprop. They did so not because they believed in free speech, or supported Trump. They did so because propaganda makes them piles of money. Period.
The long-term solution here is simple: the government should step in to regulate content on these sites. There is nothing in the First Amendment that safeguards a corporation’s right to pad its profits by amplifying misinformation. Monetizing anti-democratic lies is not protecting free speech. It’s sedition. Period.
These are principles that go beyond Trump and Facebook. As a guiding national principal, move fast and break things is a recipe for tyranny. No democracy can function with a cultural and political discourse that is routinely polluted by wild conspiracies and violent agitation.
Any social media platform or political demagogue who seeks to profit by these means should be shut down. Permanently.