, 23 tweets, 6 min read
Many thoughtful people wrote about the talk that Zuckerberg gave at @Georgetown. But I’m wondering whether, even after Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony yesterday, people really get how crazy it is that Zuckerberg is casting @Facebook as champion of free speech. THREAD:
Zuckerberg got some basic things right. Advocacy for social change is impossible without the right to speak freely; social media can be a powerful tool for calling attention to injustice; censorship meant to protect minorities has sometimes ended up silencing them instead.
But the rest of what Zuckerberg had to say about free speech and Facebook was mainly wrong. One error at the center of his speech—and also of his testimony—involved his effort to equate Facebook’s effort to “give people a voice” with “free speech.”
The value of a system of free speech has to be measured not just by its effectiveness in promoting individual autonomy—“voice”—but by its effectiveness in helping us discover truths, understand one another, resolve civic disagreements, govern ourselves.
Obviously, any conception of free speech has to be concerned with *censorship*—including censorship by powerful private actors, like Facebook. But a conception of free speech concerned *only* with censorship would not do what most of us, whatever our politics, want it to do.
For this reason, Zuckerberg’s effort to cast himself in the role of free speech champion, and his critics in the roles of would-be censors, is at best simplistic.
Facebook’s most trenchant critics aren’t critics of free speech; they’re critics of a conception of free speech that undercuts some of the interests that most people want our system of free expression to serve.
These critics, at least, don’t want Facebook to *jettison* free speech. They want Zuckerberg to think more seriously about what free speech actually means, what work it’s supposed to do in our society, and what it requires in this new context.
On this front, see @mashagessen’s excellent post here: newyorker.com/news/our-colum…
There are other deep problems with Zuckerberg’s effort to paint Facebook as a mansion house of liberty for the digital age.
One is that, for better and worse, Facebook takes down a lot of content that the First Amendment protects, as @klonick, @davidgreene, @jilliancyork, @davidakaye and others have been pointing out.
Another is that Zuckerberg’s story, which focuses on *users’* voices, leaves out the role that *Facebook’s* decisions play in determining which voices are heard and which are suppressed.
Facebook’s users interact and speak to one another in an environment shaped by Facebook’s interface, algorithms, and policies. What gets said is up to individual users, but it’s Facebook that determines which speech is amplified and which is drowned out.
Yes, users sometimes post stuff that is false or hateful. But the prominence of false, hateful, and sensational speech on the platform is a result of *Facebook’s* decisions and business model. (Read @nicolewong & @sivavaid for more on this.)
Still another problem with Zuckerberg’s story is that it’s oblivious to some of the ways in which Facebook *actively interferes* with our system of free expression. One example: nytimes.com/2018/08/07/us/…
And yet another problem with it is that it omits any recognition of the surveillance apparatus that is at the heart of Facebook’s platform. This is a huge omission.
Any serious consideration of free speech here has to contend with the fact that Facebook follows everyone around making a note of which stories they share, which websites they visit, who they communicate with, & countless other details about our expressive & associational lives.
The collection, aggregation, and exploitation of this data threatens the privacy that is a precondition for freedom of inquiry, freedom of association, and freedom of expression.
Zuckerberg wants to be taken seriously as a defender of free speech, but taking him seriously requires closing our eyes to what Facebook is, and to what it is doing.
Now, given the other options, it’s probably good that Zuckerberg wants to be thought of as a digital-age free speech defender. It’s good that he wants to be thought of as a reluctant censor.
But “free speech,” on its own, is a vessel to be filled, not a plan of action. If Zuckerberg wants us to believe that Facebook is giving free speech the consideration it deserves, he needs to move beyond the simplistic notion that free speech just means more and louder voices.
He also needs to show an awareness, at least, of the ways in which Facebook is shaping and distorting our system of free expression and undermining the values that free speech is meant to serve.

(But if you got all the way here, you might be interested in the slightly expanded version of this thread, which is available as a blog post here: knightcolumbia.org/content/facebo…)
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