Is Facebook really the champion of free speech

Speaking at Georgetown University Mark Zuckerberg referred to Facebook as a champion of "free-expression" even if that means uploading misleading ads. Facebook wants to make money and leave the platform responsibility on users

Mark Zuckerberg Georgetown University

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook is the new savior of free speech but not when it comes to profit. “When profit comes up against democracy, Facebook chooses profit,” Senator Elizabeth Warren had tweeted last week. In a series of tweets, she showed how Facebook can be a platform that could shape the destiny of a country by influencing a democratic election. 

Senator Warren claimed that Facebook is “a disinformation-for-profit-machine.”

Last month Facebook confirmed that it won’t fact check politicians’ speech or block their content if it’s newsworthy even if it violates the site’s hate-speech rules or other policies. Nick Clegg Facebook’s head of global policy and communication referred to in his speech about Facebook’s plans to prevent interference in the 2020 presidential elections. In other words, Facebook will continue to make money and let the users judge themselves on what and politicians are saying about themselves and their rivals. 

Speaking at Georgetown University on Thursday, Zuckerberg iterated the same sentiments that Facebook doesn’t want to be the referee. “Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether,” Zuckerberg said. “But political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.” (A full transcript of his speech)

Zuckerberg referred Facebook as a champion of “free-expression” admits the ongoing allegations on censorship and how the platform is forming biases. We already know how Facebook can be manipulated for political gains during elections.

The hypothesis for Zuckerberg’s claim lies in China – a country that has defined its own rules and Facebook has failed to make an entry officially. Taking a dig over China during the question-answer session he emphasised on the fight for free expression around the world.

“A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese. We’re beginning to see this in social media too. While our services like WhatsApp are used by protestors and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app, mentions of these same protests are censored, even here in the US. Is that the internet that we want?”

He was referring to the guidelines presented by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which were obtained by The Guardian last week. Later TikTok said that the guidelines were outdated and emphasised that US moderation decisions are made by a US-based team and are not influenced by a foreign government.

“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.” A phrase that he coined while delivering his 40-minute talk. 

Facebook – champion of free speech

After the last US elections, Facebook has been a part of multiple controversies and the PR team has witnessed endless nightmares. After it was clear how Facebook has been used to manipulate democratic elections, there have been serious questions raised on the supremacy the social networking giant is driving all over the globe. So now Facebook wants to keep a distance from the elections under the banner of “free expression”

The argument from Facebook now is that it won’t be doing fact-checking but will allow the users to decide what is good and not. Even broadcasters at some level do fact-check why is Facebook shying away. Take the latest example where Facebook’s decision to allow an ad from President Trump’s 2020 campaign that included falsehoods about former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) This trend is only going to grow and we also know fake news has been a hunting ground for Facebook and Whatsapp.

Free speech is a slippery ground. What might be a free speech for a certain group can be debated by another set of people. But that doesn’t mean you become a mute spectator. Facebook’s new stance is basically to keep making money while uploading content from politicians without even looking at it. NewYorkTimes reported how President Trump is outspending every democrat on Facebook. So far this year, Trump has spent about $5 million on Facebook advertising.

Trump spends on Facebook Ads

The Joe Biden false viral video has 5+ million views on Facebook and the social network decided not to pull down. Obviously the company’s response drew widespread rebukes from Biden and other 2020 Democratic candidates, including Warren.

Earlier Facebook had a very different stance on fact-checking but the new move changes everything under the “Fifth Estate” shield. He makes a point to take a dig on China and TikTok (the Chinese app which is growing really fast and has become a new competitor to Facebook, especially Instagram.) and paints a picture of how Facebook products are the real saviors of free speech. But at the same time, it is allowing misleading content on its own platform that massively impacts decision making. 

“Look, we know we’re doing a very good job of making everyone angry,” Zuckerberg said. With 1.59 billion people on average logging on the platform of which 210 million users are from the US, Facebook can’t shelf it’s responsibilities on the users of the platform. This is just going to set a bad precedent for the near future, globally.