Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no friends. After giving a speech at Georgetown University last fall advocating for “voice and inclusion,” pundits pounced on the executive for his hand in a menagerie of cultural issues: destabilizing our elections, polarizing our society and murdering truth itself. The reality is that Zuckerberg is the only person defending free expression from both an overreaching political class seeking a regulatory body for social media and a misguided call for Facebook to become a stricter regulator of online speech. We are lucky such a patriot is at the helm of Facebook.
Critics of Facebook argue Russia used the site to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, citing how Russia created fake accounts to spread divisive and often false narratives. The platform is seen as so dangerously powerful that Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has threatened antitrust action against Facebook. Social media has certainly expanded the scope of fake news. But accepting the risks associated with the unregulated free expression also guarantees a society in which people can challenge the status quo without fear of censorship. This American bet on free speech was accepted by the framers of the Constitution. Despite the fact that Facebook, as a private entity, has the legal ability to censor content on its site, Zuckerberg has chosen to reaffirm our country’s bet on an unchecked national dialogue.
Even in the face of regulatory pressure, Zuckerberg has consistently and valiantly championed the cause of free speech. He has refused to police the accuracy of political posts, and he asserts Facebook is a public forum for discourse. In a particularly heated exchange on Capitol Hill, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) demanded that Zuckerberg state whether Facebook will remove posts containing lies from politicians. He waffled but ultimately refused to commit his company to verifying the accuracy of political speech. A Facebook tasked with determining the “truthfulness” of political posts — and thus prohibiting the expression of
any posts deemed “incorrect” — would have license to control what information its users see beyond the engagement algorithms it currently uses. Such a license would allow Facebook to draw the line between inflammatory opinion and “false” fact, a power too great for any organization to possess. Zuckerberg, often criticized for possessing too much power, refused to allow his company to assume the supreme responsibility of determining what is and is not true.
Furthermore, since the First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from passing laws “abridging the freedom of speech,” lawmakers shouldn’t be pushing Facebook to regulate online speech in the first place. Capitol Hill’s threats of data regulation and antitrust action amount to the federal government’s attempt to bully Facebook into waging a campaign against speech with incorrect facts. We should all take issue with congressional efforts to use Facebook as a proxy for its regulating speech on social media. While Zuckerberg has promised to defend Facebook from corporate regulation, Congress ought to reaffirm its constitutional obligation to keep speech free from government control. Moreover, the U.S. government does not have a stellar track record when it comes to determining the truth — the Afghanistan Papers, “like your doctor, keep your doctor” and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are a few instances in which it failed to do so — and thus probably isn’t the best candidate for determining factual accuracy on social media, even if done via a corporate proxy like Facebook.
There is no entity, corporate or governmental, that is qualified to be the ultimate arbiter of reality. Being a free society means risking that citizens misuse their freedoms. We accept this risk because it is preferable to the tyranny of allowing any other party the ability to abridge the voice of the individual. Zuckerberg has allowed Facebook to be a place where the individual can speak freely, consume information and sometimes be wrong. He has rejected demands for his company to claim regulatory license over speech on the platform and stood firm against legislative threats of intervention by the state. There are plenty of places in the world where information is spoon-fed to the public through government regulation. But the United States was founded on the idea that the individual’s mind ought to be able to roam free and think dangerous thoughts. There is danger in the United States’ gamble on free speech, but it’s a gamble worth taking when the alternative is unjust censorship.
Sam Kehoe is a freshman in the College. Pondering Politics appears online every other Tuesday.