Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is drawing criticism on social media for defending his company's policy of letting cranks operate on the platform. This policy strikes me as perfectly reasonable, even if Zuckerberg tripped over his words a bit when he articulated it.
The remarks came during an interview with Recode:
Zuckerberg: I also think that going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, "Hey, no, you're a liar"—that is harassment, and we actually will take that down. But overall, let's take this whole closer to home...
I'm Jewish, and there's a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.
I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong, but I think—
[Interviewer interjects:] In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.
It's hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I'm sure you do. I'm sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don't think that it is the right thing to say, "We're going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times."
What we will do is we'll say, "Okay, you have your page, and if you're not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive." But that doesn't mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.
Of course many leading Holocaust deniers are intentionally getting it wrong. They do this because they are anti-Semites, and denying the Holocaust is part of a strategy of making Jewish people less sympathetic and delegitimizing Jewish identity. Others do it because its profitable for them. Infowars, cited as an example of fake news during the Recode interview, might be an example of willful disinformation meant to sell weird stuff. But there are indeed people who naively share Holocaust denial–related content on Facebook without being in on the scam, just as there are gullible people who fall for every other kind of hoax—vaccines causing autism, 9/11 being an inside job, NASA faking the moon landing, etc. Zuckerberg is correct that it's not always easy to differentiate hucksters from kooks.
In any case, the CEO of Facebook gets to set whatever policies regarding content-sharing on his platform that he likes. As Zuckerberg made clear in the interview, his policy takes its cues from the First Amendment. Facebook users may not advocate violence or plan criminal activities, but merely expressing incorrect opinions is permissible. If Facebook were a public square on public property, it would be obliged to maintain precisely this same approach. (This is actually a good argument for not turning Facebook into some kind of truly public utility, even if you don't like its fake news policy. A government-run Facebook would be bound by the First Amendment to maintain speech policies that are at least as permissive as its current ones.)
In our modern political discourse, Facebook plays a role very much akin to the public square: a massive one, involving the entire world. The arguments for letting nearly all voices—even deeply evil ones, provided they do not organize direct violence or harassment—be heard on this platform are the same arguments for not taking the European route on hate speech: Policing hate on a very large scale is quite difficult given the frequently subjective nature of offense; we risk de-platforming legitimate viewpoints that are unpopular but deserve to be heard; and ultimately, silencing hate is not the same thing as squelching it.
Photo Credit: LEWIS JOLY/VIVA TECHNOLOG/SIPA/Newscom