At a congressional hearing last week focused on antitrust issues, Mark Zuckerberg repeated his admonition that he does not want Facebook to act as a fact-checker. “We do not want to become the arbiters of truth. That would be a bad position for us to be in and not what we should be doing,” he said in response to a question from Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
It has become vogue in some progressive circles to demand that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies take responsibility and aggressively fact-check their website’s content, in effect become the arbiter of truth for the entire media. Even more resolutely democratic-socialist figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have echoed that demand.
In this case, however, as strange as it is to say — Zuckerburg is right. Of course, Ocasio-Cortez’s impulses are correct, and the Facebook CEO is right for reasons he would object to.
Facebook, or any company, should not be given the responsibility to uphold truth in the public sphere. They simply cannot be trusted. Because of Facebook’s dominant power in the marketplace of information, the site spreads lies, often dangerous ones, at a blistering pace. The solution is not to empower them to determine what is truth and what are lies. Instead, like any monopoly that becomes too powerful, they should be broken up into heavily regulated component parts stripped of their ability to manipulate public discourse.
There is a long history of “arbiters of truth” failing at their jobs or even worse creating damage or even killing people through their acts of negligence. On the macro level think about the number of times the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler has ridiculously fallen down on the job, often in clumsy and ideological attempts to discredit left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders.
More seriously was the mainstream media, during its heyday in decades past, serving its position as the arbiters of truth. They fell for the lies of public relations con artists and in pursuit of balanced coverage continued to report for years with the implication that climate change was the subject of debate in the scientific community or that there was no consensus that cigarettes caused deadly medical ailments.
Reading through the tobacco archives is a horrific lesson in how arbiters of truth at private corporations can be easily manipulated.
Until recently, however, the media ecosystem had a limited number of nodes of misinformation that would reach a wider audience. In 2010, in relation to the problem of the lies spread by Fox News I told the Washington Post, “misinformation is dangerous when it metastasizes.” If lies and conspiracy theories could stay within the confines of Fox and talk radio and a relatively tiny ecosystem of right-wing blogs, they would do less damage than when they spread to CNN, the New York Times, or other media outlets.
Now instead of being funneled to the media from the fringes into the mainstream through conduits like Fox News and the Drudge Report, the nature of social media has created a world where the disease of misinformation spreads directly into the public consciousness.
Furthermore, Facebook is just as untrustworthy as Fox News and the Drudge Report. As a company they have not only profited from misinformation and hate speech, but have even been complicit in genocide.
Even if we could trust Facebook to fix the problem, it is too big for them to handle. Every minute people post 317,000 status updates, 147,000 photos, and 54,000 links. Additionally, more than half of Americans now get their news on the platform. Facebook has become too big. Combined with Instagram their monopolistic power over American political communications is the problem. Furthermore, because most media companies at least in part rely on Facebook for traffic and ad revenue, their power is multiplied.
When Zuckerberg says Facebook should not be the “arbiter of truth,” what he actually means is he wants the company to keep doing the bare minimum. Sensenbrenner’s question that elicited the response was actually about Twitter’s decision to take down Donald Trump Jr’s post encouraging the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus. Zuckerburg noted Facebook would remove content that would “lead to an imminent risk of harm,” and this would include “stating that there is a proven cure for COVID, when there is in fact none.”
Considering “most misleading stories about coronavirus originate on Facebook,” the company clearly cannot control misinformation on the site even when its CEO claims they want to.
It’s time to do what Barry Lynn and Matt Stoller proposed in 2018. Break Facebook up. Undo the mergers with Instagram and WhatsApp and separate the company’s ad network from the other divisions.
The answer to a company abusing its market power is not to give them more power. Or to give them power over something as important as the truth. What we need, at the very least, is regulation and the creation of a more radically democratic and egalitarian public sphere.