The recent row over Facebook's role in spreading disinformation has taken a new turn this week when a letter got busted in New York Times. The letter, posted and circulated in the closed group of employees of Facebook, was addressed to Mark Zuckerberg and the top brass of the company and it was signed by its hundreds of staff members. It decried the social media platform's decision to let politicians post any claims they wanted — even false ones — in ads on the site.
The letter said the policy shift on political advertising does not protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponise the platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.
What is the policy shift the workers of Facebook were referring to?
It is about Facebook's plans to prevent interference in the 2020 US presidential election. On September 24, Nick Clegg, Facebook's head of global policy and communication, in a speech confirmed it would not fact check politicians' speech or block their content even if it violates the site's hate-speech rules or other policies. Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of UK, claimed that it was for users to "judge what politicians say themselves."
It is not that Facebook does not do fact checking over its contents. It does. Clegg said, "We rely on third-party fact-checkers to help reduce the spread of false news and other types of viral misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos. We don't believe, however, that it's an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician's speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny."
Clegg's stance was reinforced by Zuckerberg when last week the supreme commander of the company made it clear that, he is against the idea of the social network having an arbiter of political speech. In a speech in front of Georgetown University students he said that Facebook had been founded to give people a voice and bring them together. Going further he said, critics who had assailed the company for doing so were setting a dangerous example.
Defending free speech, Zuckerberg cited the examples of Frederick Douglass, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Vietnam War and the First Amendment. He contrasted Facebook's position with that of China, where the authorities control and censor speech.
In his speech the 35 year old chief executive officer of Facebook said, "I'm here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression." He advocated the freedom of expression in the way the founding fathers of America did. He said, "People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society." He added that "the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us."
On the surface, this sounds great. Zuckerberg, it seems, was championing free speech. But a closer look would reveal that he was actually on a war footing against a storm over spreading misinformation and fake news his platform was held responsible. Just a week ago Senator Elizabeth Warren accused Facebook of being a "disinformation-for-profit machine." And Marc Benioff, chief executive of the online software maker Salesforce, said Facebook "needs to be held accountable for propaganda on its platform." A number of regulators around the world had started to demand breaking the company up or clip its power.
The row with Senator Warren is a worthy of attention. Last month the Trump campaign released a 30-second video ad that falsely claimed that Joe Biden, the Democrat opponent, had committed corrupt acts in Ukraine. The Trump campaign team approached CNN to broadcast the ad. The TV station declined on grounds that it violated their standards. But Facebook, when approached, ran the ad. When Biden's campaign asked Facebook to take down the false ad, the social network refused, saying that ads from politicians were "newsworthy" and "important for discourse".
Enraged by this obstinacy, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts who is also running for president, bought a political ad on Facebook that claimed, rather falsely, that Zuckerberg and his company supported Trump for president. Warren said, "We decided to see just how far it goes."
Wherever the current row might lead to, there is no denying the fact that the root of the debate lies deep down. It lays bare a growing divide between social media companies and traditional media companies. The latter is ruled and governed by a set of rigorous ethical obligations which the former, to certain extent, is free of. Applying the same set of standards to social media may lead to efforts of making a wild horse behave like a donkey.
Some of the pundits have already crowned Zuckerberg with the title of "editor-in-chief of world content." Others say, the title should rather go to Zuckerberg's News Feed algorithm – a complex set of coded logic that has nothing but a blind preference for attention and replication.
In a post-truth era, that began in 2017, after the Trump election and Brexit, Facebook is equated to the Gutenberg press that gave birth to books, newspaper and pornography. But while the scholarship of the eighteenth century philosophers paved the way for European enlightenment, the post-truth era is leading to chaos and socio-political mayhem. The deafening clamor of social media, the unhindered circulation of malicious lies, the absence of fact-checking, and the aggression of populist propaganda are apparently corroding the fundamental cornerstones of ethical journalism.