Jon Healey, Tribune News Service
Not to express sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg, but Facebook has reached the point where it just cannot win. Ever. Period.
On Thursday, the company announced that it was permanently banning a handful of people who had used Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram to push reprehensible notions into the world. Most of them were provocateurs and conspiracy theorists on the right wing, such as Alex Jones, but also included was the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes and homophobia.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you have a business that offers free meeting space to the public, provided that users follow the good-conduct rules you post on your bulletin board. If some of your patrons should then violate the rules and make other customers feel like your space breeds hate and irrationality, you’d show those rule-breakers the door, right? Of course you would.
But when Facebook did that very thing, it drew condemnation from some quarters and earnest hand-wringing from others. “I understand Facebook’s desire to rid itself of terrible speech, especially given the rise of online hate,” wrote David French at National Review. “But when considering how to deal with the worst ideas, it’s prudent to rely on principles of free speech and common law that have served America so well for so long.”
French’s concern, which is a common one on the right, is that Facebook is silencing conservative voices more often than liberal ones. As French points out, people are more likely to find something hateful or rule-breaking in a post by someone on the opposite side of the political fence. And it’s no secret that Facebook’s workforce, like that of most Silicon Valley companies, is dominated by people on the left. Hence the notion that, while fortune favours the bold, Facebook favours the liberal.
Assume for a moment that it does. Then what? The company is entitled to enforce its terms of service; the only potential caveat is that it may be considered a public accommodation, in which case it can’t discriminate against users on the basis of race, religion or other protected category. But even then, political parties and ideological groups are not protected classes.
And users would be entitled to take their attention, personal photos and birthday announcements elsewhere. As they are free to do now. If Facebook abuses its power to police its network, it will only make it easier for would-be competitors to gain traction.
I thought conservatives liked market-based approaches. That’s certainly what they’ve been fighting for when it comes to net neutrality rules. Or rather, no rules.
Admittedly, there’s no other company that offers what Facebook does at the scale it has attained. That scale — 2.8 billion users worldwide and counting — gives Facebook a disturbing amount of power over the flow of news and information. And its reach is what makes it attractive to many of its users. The bigger problem is that Facebook has become such a trusted source of unreliable information for so many people, often spread from peer to peer. That’s hard to solve, given that the fundamental issue is the confirmation bias and lack of skepticism that afflict the population. From that perspective, the company isn’t banning nearly enough sources of bad info.
The idea behind the 1st Amendment’s free-speech protections is that the government shouldn’t put any restriction on what people say, as long as the words aren’t in and of themselves harmful to anyone else. There’s no such admonition on private individuals or companies. For its part, Facebook signaled last month that it would intensify its enforcement efforts against “problematic content.” Deciding whether something is “problematic” is necessarily subjective, not unlike deciding whether something is hyperbolic bluster or a real threat. But there shouldn’t be any controversy about banning a guy who tried to persuade the public that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened and it was all a government plot.
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