“Mark Zuckerberg needs to decide whether he is running a newspaper or a truly free platform“
The value of Facebook as a political communications tool is hard to overestimate. Without it, Brexit almost certainly would not have happened and Donald Trump would not be US President. In Italy, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Salvini have also used social media to completely transform the political landscape.
I reminded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of this on Tuesday when he appeared before MEPs in the European Parliament, where he was fielding questions triggered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s fair to say that this high priest of the liberal elite did not look best pleased at my dwelling on the key role his company has played in helping to create what he would regard as these totally unacceptable democratic outcomes.
Zuckerberg’s personal political views, and no doubt those of his close colleagues in Silicon Valley, may help to explain why in January this year Facebook announced its algorithms were going to change. The tech giant said it was going to “de-prioritise” news publishers and their posts in Facebook users’ news feeds. In other words, it was going to doctor the kind of news to which Facebook’s 1 billion users were exposed. And this is exactly what it has done.
The impact of this decision has been swift and brutal. According to analysis of Facebook engagement data using various tech programmes including BuzzSumo, conservative publishers like Breitbart and Fox News (for whom I work as a contributor) have seen a significant decrease in the numbers visiting their websites and engaging with their messages via Facebook. It is estimated that traffic to certain right-of-centre sites and commentators driven by Facebook has fallen by 25 per cent or more.
The data also shows that at the same time, liberal-leaning sites like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times have seen an increase in the numbers reading their material via Facebook.
You do not need to be Alan Turing to understand what Facebook’s technical tinkering has done. Whether or not you like these news sources and their opinions, they are effectively being censored – presumably because of their support for Trump or for Brexit.
On Tuesday I put all of this to Zuckerberg and asked him who, within Facebook, decides what is politically “acceptable”. I also asked him about what I perceive to be a lack of transparency around Facebook’s modus operandi in this regard. Zuckerberg claimed Facebook had “never made a decision about what content was allowed on the basis of political orientation”. And that was that.
This was – and is – most unsatisfactory.
Facebook likes to calls itself “a platform for all ideas”. It refuses to admit it is a publisher. This makes good business sense because it allows it to avoid becoming entangled in a web of regulations. So, it presents itself to the world as an impartial medium through which other media outlets can transmit their messages.
The trouble is, its “de-prioritastion” of news initiatives has rather exposed it as the very thing it does not wish to be called. I would argue that, in reality, its active decisions over what it will and will not publish prove it to be a publisher with a clear editorial line.
I recognise that Facebook is a private entity and that it is entitled to its own editorial line, just like any newspaper is. But if it cannot be honest about something as fundamental as its politics, it is in danger of curtailing free speech on a global scale. This is a surprising position for a liberal-minded man like Zuckerberg to find himself in. It shows a fundamental lack of respect for democracy.
I am generally against the idea of introducing more legislation in any area of life. I believe that there is quite enough of that already. But I do now wonder whether technology has advanced so far and so quickly that the time has come for a social media bill of rights to be drawn up which would protect freedom of speech internationally.
How else can anybody guarantee that the erosion of legitimate political opinion by a shadowy body operating within the world’s biggest company will not continue? And if something is not done about this neutering of political debate, where will it end?
This all boils down to whether Facebook is private company and a publisher with its own editorial line or it is truly a “platform for all ideas” as Zuckerberg claims. It is time they made up their minds, because they cannot be both.