Cop this. Apparently, this week, Facebook is evil. And, no, not because it’s a rich, reeking leviathan that has become more culturally and financially commanding than most governments. It’s because it engages in the wrong kind of censorship.
When The Guardian reported yesterday on leaked internal documents distributed to Facebook moderators, much Western press reaffirmed the newspaper’s view. It is abhorrent, they said, that Facebook permits the publication of misogynist raving, yet will not allow a single post explicitly threatening the life of the US president.
And, of course, in one sense, it is. Recently, a young man wished me “whore cancer” for a link I had posted to a pro-WikiLeaks petition. Naturally, I rather wish he hadn’t, and that the social media giant provided some prohibition, if only against the use of fictitious diseases as threat. I do not think that the written abuse many encounter is acceptable. Nor, however, do I think that it is acceptable that Mark Zuckerberg has the power to define these limits, whether I like them or not.
Last year, it was reported that Facebook imposed a limit that many of us liked. According to many former staffers, stories that favoured the GOP were actively suppressed in the user feed. For as much as I would like to reside in a world without the Republican Party, I would prefer one where Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have the monopoly on information.
Were it not for his company’s unprecedented cultural reach and his 60 billion bucks, the guy would just be another exasperating Facebook friend who wants to tell you a thing-or-two. He may have co-founded the colossal company, but he uses its product with all the talent of your mum after five sparkling burgundies. What sort of numpty dumps a 6000-word manifesto on “building the world that we want” in the public trough, then proposes himself as its architect? Not even me. Not even me.
We’ve all got ideas for improving the world. One of mine, for example, is that all nations seize public ownership of Facebook whose very existence is contingent on our labour of likes and cat photos, whose very press freedom is imperilled by its ubiquity. I can make this declaration and you need not fear that it will make any sort of dent. This Zuckerberg, though — whose abridged education is quite clear in a post that characterises history as a matter of global consensus, never one of conquest — can have a half-arsed idea and it may effectively become “policy”.
Before his famous, and tax-efficient, announcement that he and partner Priscilla Chan would start a charitable foundation, which actually turned out to be a for-profit company, Zuckerberg dipped his toe in philanthropy. Timed to coincide with the release of The Social Network, an unflattering and unauthorised biopic, was the CEO’s televised announcement to Oprah Winfrey that he was saving America’s children one immiserated zip code at a time. He pledged US$100 million for education in the critically depressed city of Newark, New Jersey, but without consulting parents, children, teachers or any person directly involved in the provision of public education. The money went largely to local charter schools, which are exempt from tedious old state standards like accepting challenging students from low-income homes, and the result was not the “success” Zuckerberg claimed on Facebook, but a measurable failure, which hit poor kids, mostly black, hardest.
Apart from Mark himself, nearly everyone describes this program, with its focus on paying approved teachers performance bonuses, as fiasco. Those uncritical of the Silicon Valley habit of bypassing law, consultation and democracy generously called it a “naive mistake”. Those in the business of asking questions, such as former Washington Post education reporter Dale Russakoff, saw the plan as cynical. In her book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, she describes a young billionaire eager to see how far he could push his political influence without the bother of attaining office, and one rather keen on a public image upgrade to Gates 2.0.
In the years since his first philanthropic cruelty, Zuckerberg has gaily attempted several more. You could put this unctuous moment with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi down to the orientalist fantasy Zuckerberg kept alive after Steve Jobs’ death — Mark is one of many entrepreneurs who visited an ashram to ponder his business risk — or, you could see it as a power grab. Zuckerberg talked a good game about bringing “the internet” to India’s poorest, but this concealed his true ambition of bringing a huge competitive advantage to his company in one of the world’s most populous nations. Many Indian journalists and activists successfully opposed the “curated” (i.e. mostly Facebook) internet experience. Perhaps Modi, a man who shares Zuckerberg’s interest in both punitive neoliberalism and ashrams, can still be convinced.
The CEO has just thrown out a “charitable” $10 million to investigate the matter of universal basic income (UBI). Silicon Valley’s rich list has a current mania for UBI that is matched only by that it has long upheld for not paying taxes. Zuckerberg, who gives very little to the many nations from which he amasses extraordinary profit, will soon join Elon Musk in bullying state leaders to toss their citizens enough change to keep Tesla and Facebook in business. Zuckerberg wants a “global community”! Zuckerberg really cares.
Even if Zuckerberg did care, which he likely does not, and even if Zuckerberg could see genuine solutions to social problems, which he cannot, it wouldn’t matter one jot. Like his mates, this guy has not earned the right to abolish what remains of democracy.
Although he never shall, Zuckerberg could permit only those posts that call for an end to all cultural prejudice. He could slap a rainbow flag upon us all. He could use his influence, and his uneven education, to demand universal tolerance and decry Trump’s extra scoop of ice-cream. He could even use his vast fortune to genuinely improve education outcomes, rather than impose his bullshit bonus idea of market balance in the realm of public education.
It wouldn’t matter. Like his childhood idol Bill Gates, he is not only underqualified to determine what is good for the world, but undeserving. We didn’t elect this guy. Yet, he determines what is understood as acceptable and as free. We either nationalise Facebook, or ban its philanthropic arse from our nation.