Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”
A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.
What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?
Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.
On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.
Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.
Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.
Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.
To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.
Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.
For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.
Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:
- Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
- Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
- Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
- Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
- Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views
All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:
It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.
Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.
Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.
In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.
When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.
In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.
What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.
So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:
If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.
Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.
Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.
To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.