Sun, Oct 20, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Facebook blind to how dangerous its megaphone is

By Shira Ovide  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Facebook Inc chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg gives a speech at a forum hosted by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and the McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington on Thursday.

Photo: Reuters

Facebook Inc chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday gave a passionate defense of how Facebook and the rest of the Internet are essential tools for the free expression that is essential in a healthy democracy. I agree with this in principle, as I imagine most Americans would.

The dark side of Facebook and the mass-market Internet is not necessarily the ideas behind them. It is how those principles can wittingly or unwittingly be subverted when principle meets reality.

The question is whether the good that comes from anything — Facebook, the automobile, electricity — outweighs the inevitable negative effects and whether it is possible to mitigate the latter, while accentuating the former.

While I am glad that Zuckerberg is articulating his values and, by extension, those of the company that he controls with absolute authority, the principle of Facebook matters far less than what happens when lofty ideals collide with more than 2.4 billion people around the world using Facebook or its Messenger chat app. That number grows to more than 2.7 billion when you throw in WhatsApp and Instagram.

Zuckerberg used a speech at Georgetown University to argue for an optimistic view of the Internet. It was a good speech and worth watching.

He said the spread of prevalent Internet hangouts like Facebook is giving more people chances to be heard in ways that were not possible when, for example, a handful of rich people controlled printing presses or TV airwaves.

Over the long arc of history, Zuckerberg said, more speech from more kinds of people is healthy, within some reasonable limits like prohibiting the proverbial false cries of “fire” in a crowded theater.

How could anyone disagree with that? However, as always, the devil is in the details. Where people do not agree is what counts as shouting “fire” to cause a stampede of people.

And, more important, can Facebook at its scale effectively stamp out the truly harmful speech — terrorist propaganda, incidents of violence or incitements to violence, dangerous hoaxes — when there might be thousands of people falsely yelling out “fire” every minute?

Zuckerberg did not mention Myanmar in his speech, but to me it is the crucible of Facebook’s free-speech principles. In that country, people spread hoaxes, false claims and calls for violence toward the Rohingya Muslim minority. Some of the people spreading those hateful messages on Facebook were politicians, members of the military or other authority figures.

There were groups in Myanmar that begged Facebook to stop what many people — and indeed, Facebook’s own rules — regarded as the kind of speech that should be impermissible.

Facebook last year agreed with the UN, which said the company did not do enough to prevent itself from facilitating ethnically based violence.

It was not Facebook’s principles that helped cause a genocide in Myanmar. It was the reality of Facebook. A company that is home to 2.7 billion people did not pay enough attention to the downsides of free expression in Myanmar and could not or would not do enough about it until it was too late.

Facebook has said it was “too slow to act” in Myanmar, one of the company’s stock lines when it gets caught being a launchpad for violence, propaganda or other ills when its principles collide with the reality of the world and the limits of the company’s capacity to understand the harm it can cause.

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