Beyond Blackface: Can Hollywood’s Reckoning on Race Lead to Substantive Change?
Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg’s Bromance and Our Illusion of Democracy
In challenge after challenge, Facebook became increasingly deferential to our bully-in-chief, successively emboldening him to continue his (often inaccurate, always unkind) attacks on opponents
Ever since Donald Trump was elected, you might have been wondering if you were still living in a democracy. Now it can be told: No, not really, you’re not.
A Washington Post investigation into Facebook’s dealings with the Trump administration published on Sunday afternoon reveals the damning level of collusion between the CEO of one of the most powerful public companies in the world, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and our toxic chief executive.
Exhibit A: the Post reveals that after Trump posted about sending military troops to quell protests in Minnesota over George Floyd’s killing, leading to calls to remove or regulate the president’s incendiary words, Trump called Zuckerberg.
According to the Post, on the call, Zuckerberg whined that “the post put the company in a difficult position.” His Washington-based staff had earlier that day pleaded with the White House to tweak the language of the post — or “simply delete it.”
In other words, Facebook was telling the president that they could all avoid the controversy over imposing limits on incendiary or violent speech on the platform — with a little editing! Later in the day, Trump did just that, adding that his comments were a warning (and thus in bounds for Facebook).
The Post concludes — and please read this dense paragraph slowly to take it all in:
“Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers, according to more than a dozen former and current employees and previously unreported documents obtained by The Washington Post. One of the documents shows it began as far back as 2015, when as a candidate Trump posted a video calling for a ban of Muslims entering the United States. Facebook’s executives declined to remove it, setting in motion an exception for political discourse.”
That latter document unearthed by Post reporters shows a process in which four options were proposed to deal with Trump’s race-baiting Muslim post, which ended up as policy once Trump was elected. One of the options was to remove Trump’s post. But that’s not what happened.
“Ultimately, Zuckerberg was talked out of his desire to remove the post in part by (conservative policy adviser Joel) Kaplan, according to the people. Instead, the executives created an allowance that newsworthy political discourse would be taken into account when making decisions about whether posts violated community guidelines.”
It’s gone downhill from there. In challenge after challenge, Facebook became increasingly deferential to our bully-in-chief, successively emboldening him to continue his (often inaccurate, always unkind) attacks on opponents.
Facebook blinking in the face of Trump has also emboldened despots around the world. But Zuckerberg has gotten incrementally more comfortable with accommodation.
“As Trump grew in power,” the Post writes, “the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network, according to the current and former employees.”
Here’s one such former employee:
“The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook,” said David Thiel, a Facebook security engineer who resigned in March.
As debate has swirled over Facebook’s policies regarding political speech, you might have thought that the social media giant was really grappling hard with the question of how much they should regulate free speech versus protecting a political process that has been distorted by bad actors on their platform.
The power elite was just getting together to work it out. The Post article is a masterful piece of investigative work — we are all in debt to the writers Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg and Tony Romm — that also owes plenty to the principled Facebook executives who left the company in disgust and obviously leaked a lot of information to the Post.
A reminder that Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has courageously taken a stance against Trump’s tweets, recently imposing fact checks and earning Trump’s wrath as a result.
Also, reminder that a parade of top commercial brands — Unilever, Coca Cola and, lately, Starbucks — have decided to boycott Facebook over the platform’s failure to curb hate speech.
Facebook is not just any company. It is the single largest media platform In. The. World. And it is controlled by one single person who, as my former Post colleague and professional Zuck-baiter Kara Swisher points out, cannot be fired.
So Facebook’s responsibility looms larger than any company — public or private — that I can think of.
It is clear that Zuckerberg was not inclined to accept the responsibility that his powerful platform requires. And that financial considerations, tragically, outweigh his paper-thin understanding of the damage to our democracy to which he is contributing.
Now that his current and former employees are speaking out, and Facebook’s advertisers are voting with their dollars, perhaps, just maybe, he will pay attention.