A good rule of thumb in business, and in life generally, is that if you find yourself defending Holocaust deniers, you’ve probably taken a wrong turn somewhere. This week, Mark Zuckerberg found himself at the end of that particular cul de sac, while discussing Facebook’s struggles to counter conspiracy theories and fake news. “So I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive,” he told Recode’s Kara Swisher. “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. It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
Zuckerberg quickly apologized for his comments, but they did not occur in isolation. The previous day, The Wall Street Journal reported that roughly half the outlets present at a recent meeting between Facebook and publishing executives were conservative outlets, some of which regularly traffic in propaganda and “breathless, bad faith partisan hype,” as BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith told Neil Patel of The Daily Caller, which was represented at the meeting. What Smith and HuffPost’s Lydia Polgreen had objected to was that Facebook was treating legitimate news organizations as the liberal equivalents of conservative rags like The Daily Caller.
Facebook, in other words, is fast falling into a false equivalence trap. In the worlds of television and newspapers, conservative media spun off into its own galaxy a long time ago. But Facebook is desperate to convince users and regulators that, in the age of the social network, conservative and liberal media can continue to co-exist. The problem is that no platform can host conservative media without ultimately being implicated in conspiracy theories, Holocaust denialism, or worse.
Facebook has a clear incentive for courting conservatives: It sees Republicans as crucial allies in the fight to avoid onerous regulation. The company can’t say that, however, so Zuckerberg was forced to make a tortured “free speech” argument that led him to a very strange place. Facebook’s line is that this unimaginably large platform has to be neutral. It cannot be the judge of whether, for instance, it is acceptable to deny the fact of the Holocaust.
The result of these logical gymnastics is untenable: To win points with Republicans in Congress, Facebook is courting crazies. Furthermore, by embracing the very people who make its platform toxic, it is going to alienate mainstream users and invite regulatory scrutiny from Democrats, who want to know why Facebook isn’t doing more to kick out sites like InfoWars.
This dynamic is playing out all over Silicon Valley. Ever since Facebook news “curators” admitted that they suppressed stories from sites like The Daily Caller in 2016, Republicans have argued that Big Tech is silencing conservative voices. As companies like Facebook and Google have grown more powerful, and as Republicans have sought to cast every debate about Silicon Valley in polarized terms, these arguments have grown louder. During Zuckerberg’s appearances before Congress in early April, for instance, many Republicans didn’t ask him about Cambridge Analytica, a Trump-affiliated firm that had improperly gained access to the private information of tens of millions of Facebook users. They asked him why the company was censoring conservatives like Diamond & Silk, the vloggers who regularly opened for Donald Trump at his 2016 campaign rallies.
Tech companies have responded by aggressively courting Republicans. Days after Zuckerberg testified before Congress, Facebook announced that it had commissioned the Heritage Foundation and former Senator Jon Kyl to conduct an audit of the company’s policies. Google has upped its engagement with Republicans, while Twitter executives have been spotted dining with high-profile conservatives in Washington, D.C.
There is, to be clear, no evidence that Facebook suppresses conservative voices. While one former contractor did tell Gizmodo in 2016 that the site’s curation of “trending topics” had a “chilling effect on conservative news,” these curators were attempting to enforce a set of journalistic standards. It should come as no surprise that articles from The New York Times routinely met those standards, whereas blog posts from The Gateway Pundit did not.
The reason why conservative blogs were blocked from the “trending” section was a bias towards hard news, which is in short supply on those blogs. They have pointed to declining traffic figures as evidence that Facebook is out to get them, but these are the result of wider changes that have diminished traffic to news outlets in general, including liberal ones like Slate.
At a Tuesday appearance by executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter before the House Judiciary Committee, Republican lawmakers brought up the “censorship” of Diamond & Silk and The Gateway Pundit, and actions supposedly taken against sites that expressed appreciation for Chick-fil-A and Catholicism. The executives apologized. They also hedged whenever they were asked about Alex Jones’s conspiracy website InfoWars. “If they posted sufficient content that it would violate our threshold, then the page would come down,” Facebook’s Monica Bickert said. “The threshold varies depending on the different types of violations.”
In casting anti-Semitic and hateful posts as a “free speech” issue, Zuckerberg and Facebook are dodging the real question, which is if it has a responsibility to ensure that its platform isn’t used to spread misinformation that can have horrible effects in the real world, as we saw in the U.S. election in 2016 and in Myanmar and India.
Tech companies face a choice. If they remove hatemongers and conspiracy theorists from their platforms, they invite the threat of regulation from Republicans; if they continue to embrace right-wingers, they invite a backlash from their users and the further threat of regulation from Democrats. For now, they’re opting to do the bare minimum in toxic clean-up in an effort to please Republicans. But they won’t be able to do the bare minimum for much longer.