Shameful. Irresponsible. Accomplices.
These are the words House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used to describe Facebook and its executive board this week during one of the most highly-watched news conferences of the new year.
“They don’t care about the impact on children. They don’t care about truth,” she said, adding that Facebook’s only interest is turning a profit. Facebook has “schmoozed” the administration—a likely reference to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s secretive dinners with President Trump—because “all they want is their tax cuts and no antitrust action against them.”
“I think that what they have said very blatantly, very clearly, that they intend to be accomplices for misleading the American people with money from god knows where. They didn’t even check on the money from Russia in the last election. They never even thought they should,” Pelosi said, before returning to the topic at hand, the Senate’s looming impeachment trial.
Gizmodo assumed that Facebook would wish to push back on the speaker’s remarks, but in the past 24 hours has instead ignored repeated attempts to solicit a response.
Facebook has faced a whirlwind of criticism after last year, at revealed plans to bombard American voters with disinformation about political candidates, chiefly by enabling rivals to push blatant lies about one another through unchecked sponsored posts on its audience network.
Facebook has attempted to defend its conduct by portraying CEO Mark Zuckerberg as some kind of radical free-speech advocate—often by invoking the First Amendment, which as any 7th grader could tell you, has absolutely nothing to do with Facebook’s policing of its platform.
“We’re not doing it because of the money,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said after an earnings call last year, in which Zuckerberg himself noted that political advertising accounts for less than one per cent of the company’s revenue. (One per cent of $US55 ($80) billion is, objectively, a very large amount of money.)
Citing Zuckerberg, Sandberg went on to say that Facebook believes deeply in freedom of expression. “We believe in political speech, and ads can be an important part of that,” she said.
During a House subcommittee hearing last week—where Facebook’s vice president of global policy management, Monica Bickert, appeared as a witness—a former design ethicist at Google raised allegations that Facebook and other platforms are essentially brainwashing Americans and their children, rewiring their brains to accept disinformation in ways that will have a far-reaching and deleterious impacts on the societal fabric.
“This affects everyone, even if you don’t use these products,” said Tristan Harris, now the executive director of the Centre for Humane Technology. “You still send your kids to a school where other people believing in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories causes impact for your life, or other people voting in your elections.”
The polarisation of Americans, Harris added, “is actually part of the business model.”
Zuckerberg’s attempts to hold himself up as some sort of 21st century James Madison haven’t gone over so well. Perhaps because he lacks the eloquence and stature of Justice Louis Brandeis. Maybe his personal conundrums simply aren’t as weighty as the poor, persecuted German publisher John Peter Zenger. Nor his attorney, Andrew Hamilton, who surmised the very purpose of “speaking and writing truth” is to expose and oppose “tyrannical power.” What has Zuckerberg ever done that was brave?
Even porn mogul Larry Flynt, who managed to balance being an exuberantly wealthy businessman and a persecuted free-press idol simultaneously, never debased himself by suckling at the teat of power.