Zuckerberg’s Nightmare

How Facebook’s Censorship Policy Turned Toxic

Open Dialogue for ME But Not For YOU

In our post earlier this week, “The Metaphysics of Facebook: How Facebook’s Censorship Engine Became Anti-Christian,” we saw that Facebook has gradually been amassing an army of content moderators. 15,000 people now decide what should and should not be seen. These content moderators—some employed directly by Zuckerberg, but most working for third-party vendors under contract with Facebook—have been helping the company mainstream anti-Christian philosophical ideas.

Facebook’s Neutrality Problem

Until recently, Mark Zuckerberg could side-step the question of his philosophical commitments, claiming never to take sides while doing exactly that. Even as late as 2019, the Facebook founder and CEO still insisted that it was more important to give everyone a voice than to enforce a specific philosophical or political agenda. For example, in an address at Georgetown University on October 17 2019, Zuckerberg declared, “the ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy worldwide.” He clarified that his company would “continue to stand for free expression,” and even allow misinformation.

“I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true,” Zuckerberg emphasized. He acknowledged that this commitment to neutrality would be extended to politicians, adding, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”

Zuckerberg followed up his Georgetown remarks in an interview with CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin last May. During this interview, the Facebook CEO said, “I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth.”

But even as Zuckerberg was making these comments, Christian academics continued to report being censored from the platform for “violating community standards.” The Spectator reported that Facebook removed material for a conference on religious freedom, while our earlier post covered the banning of Dr. Robert Gagnon after he criticized the overhaul of Trump’s transgender military ban. The fact that these moves have run parallel with Mark Zuckerberg’s open support for LGBTQ activism, has made it hard not to conclude that the Facebook founder and CEO has a clear agenda that he is prepared to enforce.

The reality is that philosophical neutrality is neither coherent, possible, nor desirable, and attempts to deny this can only be sustained through a rhetorical hall of mirrors. In reality, the question was never whether Facebook could be philosophically neutral; rather, the real question has always been how long Zuckerberg could maintain his sham commitment to neutrality and free speech while continuing to use his platform to suppress Christian philosophy. Until recently, it seemed that this illusion might continue indefinitely. But recent events have created a perfect storm to undermine Facebook’s neutrality posturing, putting Zuckerberg in a particularly difficult position. Here is what happened.

Zuckerberg Cancels Trump

After the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, there were a variety of interpretations about the causes of the violence, and to date no consensus has emerged.

Mark Zuckerberg weighed into this debate on January 7th, apparently convinced that President Trump was not merely responsible for the violence, but “intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor.” Zuckerberg said his company removed a post the president had shared on Facebook and Instagram, and that they were indefinitely banning Mr. Trump from both platforms after the latter’s “decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building.” This was a bit of a storm in a teacup, since the offending post was a video of Mr. Trump urging protestors inside the Capitol to go home.

Zuckerberg Kicks Can into Lap of Oversight Board

Zuckerberg’s decision publicly to condemn a US president was a rare move, since he normally has tried to insulate himself from political controversies. In the ensuing dispute over whether Trump’s account should be reinstated, Zuckerberg retreated to neutrality, distancing himself from the controversy by handing the matter over to the company’s Oversight Board.

Zuckerberg created the 20-member oversight board specifically to buffer himself from having to arbitrate on thorny political and social questions. Members of the London-based board were picked by the company’s senior executives, paid by Facebook out of a $130 million trust, and tasked with offering a point of appeal to individuals who feel they have been mistreated by the content moderation policies of Facebook and Instagram.

Oversight Board Kicks Can Back into Zuckerberg's Lap

Four months after Facebook banned Mr. Trump from Facebook and Instagram, the board released their decision. Zuckerberg’s nightmare scenario began to unfold, for the board kicked the can back into his lap, even chastising him for the lack of clear content moderation policies.

They declared “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”

While the board found Mr. Trump guilty of “support of people engaged in violence” when he described the insurrectionists as “very special” and “great patriots,” they called the ban an “arbitrary penalty.” They insisted that Facebook must either reinstate Mr. Trump or permanently ban him based on a clear standard that also applies to the other 2.8 billion users. The board has given Facebook six months to do this.

The company-funded tribunal also addressed concern about the ambiguity involved when Facebook assumes the position as arbiter of truth: “Facebook should publicly explain the rules that it uses when it imposes account-level sanctions against influential users.”

Even more irksome, the board called out Zuckerberg for seeking to evade his responsibility:

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

Board co-chair and former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, added, “They cannot invent new unwritten rules when it suits them.”

Zuckerberg’s Living Nightmare

Zuckerberg is now having to face a series of problems he has tried carefully to avoid, including:

  • Can Facebook continue picking sides in controversial issues like election fraud and the efficacy of COVID vaccines, while also claiming not to have an agenda?
  • Can Facebook make their content moderation policies more objective without revealing their ideological cards?
  • The business model used by Facebook and Instagram relies on siphoning the attention of their 2.6 billion monthly users through making these platforms as addictive as possible. Because this works best when content is scandalous, polarizing, and salacious, have they created an environment in which fake news and even “hate speech” (however we choose to define this) can flourish? Has Facebook created a monster it has no idea how to tame?
  • If Mr. Trump is censored, then will Facebook and Instagram have to censor thousands of other conservatives who think the 2020 election was stolen? What about many European commentators who, despite their disdain for Mr. Trump, nevertheless accepted the probability of election fraud on purely statistical grounds?
  • Does Facebook, as one of the world’s most influential information and communication platforms, have a responsibility to promote public virtue? If so, what criteria should they use in determining virtue?
  • If Facebook intends to censor Mr. Trump for allegedly inciting violence, what about the violence that pornography incites? It is now routine for girls to post indecent pictures of themselves on Instagram, which this has been shown to fuel human trafficking. Can Facebook and Instagram consistently censor the one and not the other?

These questions are uncomfortable for Zuckerberg since careful answers to any of these questions risks alienating large numbers of users. But the deeper problem is that Facebook, like most of Silicon Valley, is built on the illusion that human problems are fundamentally computational, that technology can be independent of metaphysics, that innovation can be value-neutral, that human problems can be solved by code rather than philosophy and religion.

Facebook, like Google, was constructed on an engineering mindset gone amok, in which algorithms cease to serve men and women, and humans become slaves to algorithms. This model is neither coherent nor sustainable. Something will have to change at Facebook.

But then, maybe Facebook doesn’t have to deal with its problems. Perhaps Zuckerberg could kick the can into the lap of government.

Big Tech Courts Big Brother

Just when you thought the Facebook drama couldn’t get any more weird, some really bizarre things started happening at the company. In the last few weeks, Facebook unleashed a blizzard of daily ads on podcasts expressing a desire to be regulated. Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote an op-ed last week begging the government to regulate the company. We have great intentions, they keep reiterating, but we need help from government.

Zuckerberg previously entertained utopian aspirations for social media, which he saw as a “Fifth Estate” to keep the power structures of society accountable. But now he wants the power structures of society to help keep him accountable.

On one level, this makes perfect sense. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to be the bad guy, so when the oversight board kicked the can back into his lap, what better next move than to kick the can into the lap of Big Brother? This way, Zuckerberg can continue claiming to be an ideologically neutral bystander, and if someone has a problem with his company’s content moderation policies, well, then take that up with Uncle Sam.

But on another level, the problem is deeper and more systemic than merely deciding who should wield censorship authority. In principle Facebook cannot and can never solve its problems without completely dismantling its business model, which is based on the incoherent and self-contradictory notion of philosophical neutrality.

Replacing a technological oligarchy with a digital nationalism doesn’t solve this problem, but it could slightly shift the layout of the hall of mirrors.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Master's in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant with the Fellowship of St. James and is a frequent contributor to Salvo Magazine and Touchstone Magazine. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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