Every time Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opens his mouth he somehow manages to stick his foot in it. It’s not so much what he says that is harmful to both himself and his company, it’s how he says it.
Last week, Zuckerberg managed to infuriate a large segment of the population by defending Facebook’s policy to permit blatantly anti-Semitic posts on the site. His rationale for allowing hate speak to continue unfettered was a veritable cornucopia of double-speak; the kind that is both acceptable to and tolerated by an ever-increasing number of Americans.
During an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher which alluded to Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists – a group that includes Infowars host Alex Jones – Zuckerberg seemed to liken those who push alternative realities (i.e. that the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened) to Holocaust deniers.
While Zuckerberg pointed out that he is Jewish and that he finds those who propagate lies regarding the Holocaust offensive, he also said that he didn’t believe they were “intentionally getting it wrong” by misleading readers, nor that those who disseminated this type of misinformation should be taken off his platform “if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”
Like many public figures prone to confounding or deliberately misleading statements, Zuckerberg found himself under fire for his comments and attempted to walk them back. He even resorted to having his sister, Randi, come to his defense as his surrogate.
Randi Zuckerberg is active in Jewish organizations so she lends credibility to her brother’s position when she says “those bent on lying, sowing misunderstanding, and breeding hate will never be truly silenced.” She went on to say that, “Unfortunately, when we give a voice to everyone, we give it to people who use that voice for good and to people who abuse that voice.”
Fair enough. But again, it’s not so much what was said, rather how it was said; and in Zuckerberg’s case, stated somewhat cavalierly.
One of the things that has always made America great (always, not “again”) has been the freedom its citizens and its press have possessed to voice their opinions and observations, to report the news, keep us informed, and share ideas. Sadly, the very thing that makes us great can sometimes contribute to our vulnerability as well.
The First Amendment and our open, uncensored channels of expression are part of the reason Vladimir Putin’s regime was so easily able to meddle into the 2016 presidential election. They provided Russia’s security services and intelligence apparatchiks access to the hearts and minds of the American people through the deployment of highly effective disinformation, or dezinformatsiya as the Kremlin calls it. And they did so through outlets like Facebook.
While Russian stage-management of public opinion is not the sole reason for Mr. Trump’s current occupation of the White House, it certainly contributed to the American people’s opinion of him and his opponent which, in turn, may or may not have led to a favorable outcome for Vlad’s favorite marionette. More significantly, the propaganda and disinformation promulgated by Russian intelligence was highly effective in re-opening festering cultural wounds and in manipulating the emotions and reason of the American people.
As evidence continues to mount that Russian dezinformatsiya played a significant role in influencing public opinion leading up to the 2016 election, we are faced with a larger dilemma: namely, can we combat future intrusions into the American psyche without sacrificing a cornerstone of our democracy? The answer – fortunately – is no.
The First Amendment sets us free, but it also leaves us susceptible to those who wish to manipulate the beliefs and values that have long set this nation apart. At a time when the current administration is disseminating “alternative facts,” and while they continue to accuse the mainstream media of spreading “fake news,” it’s up to all of us individually to dig deep and verify what we read and see online and on-air rather than blindly accept that which is placed before us.
And while it is not Mark Zuckerberg’s obligation to protect us from the ills of the world, it is his responsibility to be more introspective when assessing the impact his creation has on the nearly 2.2 billion active monthly Facebook users around the globe.