Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the ever-beleaguered social media behemoth Facebook, has some peculiar ideas about what free speech means. In an interview with ReCode’s Kara Swisher, Zuckerberg was asked how he felt about people who share Holocaust-denialist ideas on his platform, to which he responded that though he found Holocaust denialism “deeply offensive," he felt that “at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”
Those remarks specifically raised eyebrows among mainstream media outlets, and led to widespread condemnation of Zuck on social media. In response to the furor, Zuckerberg sent an email to Swisher at Recode to clarify. It reads in part:
I enjoyed our conversation yesterday, but there’s one thing I want to clear up. I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.
Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services.
More peculiar than Zuck's remark about Holocaust denialism is the way that he describes Facebook's function, and the function of free speech. In Zuckerberg's universe, Holocaust denialism is merely something that "different people get wrong"; and he clarifies that while he finds it offensive, there's nothing innately wrong with people saying things that are "untrue."
“Wrong” is a key word here, and hints that Zuckerberg doesn’t even understand what Facebook — or postmodernity, largely — has done to the idea of truth. “Wrong” implies that there is a right and there is a wrong that is knowable. It implies an objective reality. Yet a layperson confronted with a Facebook feed spewing out 20 visions of what’s true and what’s false won't be able to discern the difference. Indeed, they may even deny that a higher “truth” exists, as an unnamed Bush aide famously did in 2002, presaging the post-truth world. From the New York Times:
The [Bush] aide said that [journalists] like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
This Bush aide — possibly Karl Rove, but never confirmed — understood something in 2002 that liberals like Zuckerberg still don't today: namely, that liberals and conservatives aren't fighting the culture wars with the same weapons. The former is on the ideological battlefield with a clipboard, the latter with a bazooka.
We've seen the harm of Zuckerberg's brand of rosy, pluralistic thinking before. President Obama epitomized it, in fact. Obama's Republican adversaries were overjoyed to smear and destroy Obama's legacy in any way possible, even if it meant fabricating narratives about him being a Muslim, a homosexual, or a terrorist. All the while, Obama insisted on giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt, a luxury they would never think to afford him.
Obama's insistence on adhering to these banal liberal platitudes meant that the GOP was able to dominate most state governments along with the House and the Senate on his watch; and that his premier policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was watered-down — a failed attempt to get votes across the aisle — and spawned from a far-right think tank. Meanwhile, during the Obama years, the GOP itself drifted further and further right, and the door was opened for white supremacists and authoritarians, who were ennobled by the right's racialized attacks on Obama — which, I must emphasize, GOP leaders did little to deflect. And we all know what happened next.
There's an old saying about American politics that goes like this: the right is interested in power, while the left is interested in fairness. This is why in a fight, the right will always win: they're not playing by the same rules as the rest of us. The Republicans want to gerrymander the hell out of the country, while the liberals want to just make the districts fair. The Republicans want to disenfranchise poor and non-white voters, while the Democrats merely want to keep voting as it is. There's a reason that Democrats keep winning the popular vote and losing the election. If U.S. politics are a see-saw, the Democrats have situated themselves in the center, while the Republicans situate themselves as far to the right as possible. Which way is it tilting, then?
This is also why the wide-open media landscape of Facebook does not resemble a fair fight. Zuckerberg is deeply invested in fairness, in his platform being perceived as ideologically open-ended. The fringe figures — anti-Semites, white supremacists, literal Nazis — they don't play by his rules, and they never will. They want power, not fairness. Facebook wants to mediate truth, but doesn't fully understand we live in a post-truth world. Zuckerberg will fail like Obama failed.
So, what is to be done? It's a big question, but to root out evil, you have to be able to first identify it as such. Nazis and anti-Semites are not merely people with "wrong" ideas, as Zuckerberg says; they stand to destroy the fundament of democratic society. You can't bat off fascists by leaving their falsehood-filled screeds intact, yet slightly less visible, as Zuckerberg proposes.
Second, liberals have to learn to be honest about why xenophobia and right-wing nationalism are on the rise — namely, it's the economy, stupid. Neoliberal economics and unprecedented income inequality have led to masses of underemployed and disenfranchised people looking for people to blame and solutions to their problems. The right offers a false scapegoat: immigrants, perhaps, or liberals, are the reason for our crises, they say.
Meanwhile, mainstream liberals are little better: Obama, Zuckerberg and Hillary Clinton all believe in some version of the idea that there isn't anything structural that needed to change, but merely the Titanic's deck chairs just need to be rearranged. You can see this in both the structure of Facebook and the structure of the Democratic Party platforms — A few tweaks here or there will just keep the boat running smoothly, they seem to think.
Yet there are political figures further to the left who have correctly identified our political problems as being rooted in the super-rich, who directly and indirectly orchestrated this crisis. Those same figures — people like Bernie Sanders, Kshama Sawant and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes — offer an egalitarian, anti-racist vision of the future that ties together the political, cultural and economic, and offer a non-oppressive politics more compelling than the centrist Dems' or the far-right's.