The Mask of Zuckerberg’s Zeal

Right after Mark Zuckerberg delivered his 40-minute address at Georgetown University on October 17, articulating his views on the speech right and the role of Facebook, several very good editorials appeared almost immediately. Most recognized the speech for what it was—PR for a corporation by a CEO who has no particular reason to be expounding on constitutional rights or history.  

Julia Carrie Wong, writing for The Guardianrejected Zuckerberg’s arrogant presumption that he and his company “gave people voices,” … 

Human beings have voices whether or not they are on Facebook. What Facebook has done for its 2.4bn users is not to give them a voice, but to give them access to an audience – and to manipulate and shape what this audience looks like through obscure algorithms that are tuned to maximize behaviors of Facebook’s choosing.”

Andrew Marantz, in The New Yorkercalled out Zuckerberg’s lies of omission, taking credit for the benefits of Facebook while offering neither contrition for, nor even acknowledgement of, his platform’s uniquely catalytic role in causing political havoc on a global scale …

 “Now that the list of countries suffering under proto-autocratic leadership has grown to include India, the Philippines, Brazil, and the United States—and given that this is no random quirk of history but one attributable, in large part, to Facebook itself—it’s long past time for Zuckerberg to come up with a new ideology, or at least a new branding strategy.”

And after Facebook announced that it would knowingly host political ads that were patently spreading false information, Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of The Social Network, penned a popular response to Zuckerberg explaining why Facebook’s policies have nothing to do with speech …

“…right now, on your website, is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son. Every square inch of that is a lie and it’s under your logo. That’s not defending free speech, Mark, that’s assaulting truth.”

While it is certainly good to see that fewer people are willing to buy Zuckerberg’s bullshit, let alone his credentials for holding forth on political philosophy, his attempt to reboot the premise that created his (and our) problems in the first place seems to be more or less where the internet industry has landed over the last year or so.  After a brief period of navel-gazing and half-hearted promises to “do better” in 2016, Silicon Valley’s wizards seem to have come to the conclusion that they were right all along—a theme that could easily be the subtitle of Zuckerberg’s Georgetown speech. 

 “Throughout history,” he says, “we have seen that more people being able to share more experiences and more perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society.” This is not exactly true as a historic statement, and it has certainly not proven to be an axiom that can applied to the effects of social media.  Most importantly, what Zuckerberg is really doing there is reprising a theme that social media platforms sit on timeline that traces a smooth arc from the Gutenberg press to Facebook. 

File that under the general talking point that everything internet companies do is inherently progress by virtue of novelty alone; but more acutely, Zuckerberg misrepresents the tire-squealing hard turn into uncharted territory that social media really was.  Remember that Facebook’s mantra was “Move fast and break things.”  Well, they did.  Unfortunately, those things include the foundations of democracy, and it is in no way clear that those things can be repaired.  

That old cliché that says you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts could not withstand the gale forces of the digital age.  It turns out you are entitled you your own facts, and Silicon Valley is only too happy to commoditize that dystopian disaster and call it “free speech.”  In Federalist 1, Hamilton warned the prospective new Americans against populists, writing …

 “…a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” 

But is there any way to eject from the paradox?  I suppose we could abandon the platforms, but only if we do so in at least millions if not tens of millions.  Otherwise, Zuckerberg can make all the dumb speeches he wants, mangle history almost as badly as Donald Trump, Jr., and adopt a company policy that openly monetizes disinformation.  Because where are we going to criticize him for his conduct?  Exactly. 

Zuck’s recycled promise that social media can only be a fillip to democracy is the trickle-down economics of the digital age.  It is Silicon Valley’s version of the worn-out theme that corporate giants are primarily in the business of investing in a new and improved world—for our sake.  

Except the techbros are not speaking in the familiar, aspirational hyperbole of advertising; their patter is a sincere and insane presumption that were right to reprogram the liberal world order.  Techno-utopianism is not an expression.  They are not kidding.  And what Zuckerberg’s Georgetown speech says most of all is that he and his buds were right all along—that it’s our fault for losing faith.  He concludes …

“I believe that more people’s voices will eventually help us work through these issues together and write a new chapter in our history — where from all of our individual voices and perspectives, we can bring the world closer together.”

Absolutely, Zuck.  More of the same will definitely make things better.  

Photo by mshmeljov

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