In an interview with Gayle King on CBS, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg continued to defend what he sees as his mission to publish false information. He even sees this as a service for the benefit of the public. He thinks it will help people emerge from their state of political blindness and “see for themselves” the reality of politics.
In response to what CBS called “his company’s decision to not take down political ads that contain false information,” Zuckerberg defined his understanding of democracy: “What I believe is that in a democracy, it’s really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments.”
In this statement, Zuckerberg appears to see an equivalence between false information and “what politicians are saying.” He is probably right. Political advertising does typically contain a high degree of false information coupled with devious intent. But beyond what he might admit is a sad and regrettable fact, he appears to invoke a further unstated principle. Zuckerberg suggests that exposing people to those lies is a good thing. He thinks allowing people to read politicians’ false claims, innuendos, smears and faulty logic will help his users develop their own skills at lie detecting, if not critical thinking.
Then he comes to his axiomatic principle on which all his reasoning is built: “And, you know, I don’t think that a private company should be censoring politicians or news.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In Facebook’s vocabulary, the reprehensible act of detecting outright lies that have been paid for
What does Zuckerberg really think about censorship? His formulation is fuzzy, to say the least. He begins with the phrase “you know, I don’t think that.” This tactic announces from the start the lack of clarity and precision of everything that follows. It also points to the probability of a serious dose of disingenuousness. Zuckerberg’s semantic subterfuge becomes even more evident with his choice of the verb “should.” It points either to probability (pressing the button should detonate the bomb) or moral obligation (people should never lie about their age). He appears to be using it in its moral sense. But, of course, his negative formulation (“don’t think … should”) removes any residual force from his assertion. He’s literally talking to say nothing.
In such conditions, teasing out the meaning of the rest of Zuckerberg’s argument can only be a challenge. Facebook has been compared to a public utility for the ubiquitous role it plays in society. Does it make sense for its founder and CEO to refer to it simply as a “private company?” As for censoring, in a courtroom Facebook’s own lawyers have claimed the company is a publisher, though elsewhere they insist it’s simply a platform. The most fundamental public responsibility of a publisher is to edit. Facebook’s critics are asking it to assume that responsibility. But Zuckerberg wants us to believe that editing is the equivalent of censorship.
Most of the commentators in the media see Zuckerberg’s defense of non-intervention regarding false information as a totally disingenuous intellectual (or rather pseudo-intellectual) dodge at best. Ben Gilbert at Business Insider has made the more sinister suggestion that Zuckerberg may simply be capitulating to the wishes of US President Donald Trump imparted to him at a secret dinner in Washington earlier this year. Trump’s interest in false information as an electoral tool is well documented.
Mark Zuckerberg majored in psychology and computer science at Harvard before dropping out, in his hurry to launch Facebook before the Winklevoss twins could beat him to the punch. Had he so much as enrolled in philosophy 101, he might have acquired a sense of the basic principles of logic and learned to avoid spouting such a speciously reasoned defense of his refusal of accountability.
Alternatively, had he studied English or the literature of any other language, Zuckerberg might have discovered the basic elements of rhetoric, which could have been useful to someone who wields so much power in the world through his control of a publishing platform used by billions of people. At some point, this master of a dominant social medium might even have become aware of Marshall McLuhan’s insight: “The medium is the message.”
But in fairness to one of the world’s richest (and, therefore, smartest) men, Zuckerberg may simply be using the strategy perfected by George W. Bush and Donald Trump. It consists of pretending to be ignorant of everything he would be expected to know about and adopting the unsophisticated rhetorical methods that have the strongest impact on an undiscerning public. Zuckerberg is probably familiar with Aristotle’s logic and McLuhan’s theory of media. He just doesn’t want to allow the conversation to reach that level because of the potential embarrassment.
A look at his other statements confirms this. For example, he counters the cogent argument put forward by his own employees that “free speech and paid speech are not the same” with a cliché that is particularly common in the US: “Well, this is a [sic] clearly a very complex issue, and a lot of people have, have a lot of different opinions.” His hesitation and repetition of “a” and “have” in this sentence reveal his embarrassment. This is the tactic of someone buying time and then producing a false and meaningless conclusion. His “pearl of wisdom” (since this is all about using clichés) amounts to the “we agree to disagree” trope that so many Americans find useful as the means of cutting off all critical thinking and marking the end of a debate.
Like President Trump, Zuckerberg resorts to restating, with slight reformulation, the same idea over and over again in his sedulous effort to counter any specific criticisms or objections. In the same interview, Zuckerberg offers these repetitive examples of his “thinking” and “believing”:
“I believe is that in a democracy, it’s really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
“At the end of the day, I just think that in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
“I think that people should be able to judge for themselves the character of politicians.”
“I think it’s important to not lose track of just the enormous good that can be done by bringing people together and building community.”
The final example takes his thought a bit further by repeating the official Facebook credo: that the company’s sole mission, after abandoning its earlier commitment to “breaking things,” is the humanitarian goal of bringing people together and fostering community. Some might claim that his tolerance and commercial exploitation of propaganda, lies and aggressive interpersonal behavior does precisely the opposite. But he would no doubt remind us that that’s a “complex issue” subject to “a lot of different opinions.”
Understanding the limits of his charisma (or lack thereof), in this interview Zuckerberg chose to mobilize his wife Priscilla Chan’s reputation and profound wisdom based on her experience as an “educator and pediatrician that’s worked deeply with families and individuals, and all types of communities.” Chan takes the trouble to explain how her husband’s commitment to not dealing with complex issues while dedicating himself to building community is the way forward: “These are not problems that one person, one company, can fix on their own … there’s not gonna be some silver bullet, but we need to work together as a society for that steady progress.”
Working together appears to mean stonewalling in the face of Facebook’s and Zuckerberg’s critics in government, among the citizenry and even from his own employees. Or perhaps it means following Trump’s orders, since The Donald will soon be facing a tough reelection campaign.
But more likely, it means making wishy-washy statements in public to buy the time that allows him to keep doing the same thing over and over again, just as he is committed to saying the same wishy-washy things over and over again.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.