Mark Zuckerberg worries about the “erosion of truth.” He wants us to know that he worries about it “deeply,” because, as we know, he is a deep thinker.
But he really doesn’t want to do anything about it.
As he tried to explain to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) the other day: “Well Congresswoman, I think lying is bad and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That’s different from it being — from it — in our position the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you have lied.”
So he is deeply conflicted as he defends Facebook’s decision not to fact-check falsehoods in political ads. If a candidate wants to run $10 million worth of ads the weekend before the election saying his opponent beats baby seals to death with the bodies of baby whales, Zuckerberg will take the money and the run the ads.
Who is he to say otherwise? “I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things that tech companies decide are 100 percent true. And I think that those tensions are something we have to live with.”
This is a defensible position and one, we should add, that is based on principle: in the tension between lies and freedom, Zuckerberg opts for freedom. He’s not going to save us from falsehoods. And, to be honest, given the degraded state of our polity, he probably couldn’t. We are neck-high in a swamp of merde, and not even Facebook can drain it.
In one sense his humility is refreshing: don’t expect the tech companies to save democracy by policing the boundaries of truth; we are going to have to do that ourselves. Our political culture will have to be robust enough to sift through the torrent of bullshit headed our way, because surely there is a diamond of truth in there somewhere.
So we will get millions of dollars of ads—many of them below-the-radar hoaxes, frauds, debunked conspiracy theories, and baseless personal attacks. In other words, of course, the Trump Campaign In Full.
Facebook says it will continue to police the Russian bots and try to fight off other foreign attacks, but the green light is flashing for any campaign that wants to engage in its own rat-f**king. And we will probably have no idea of the scope or impact of those ads until we see the election results from Michigan and Wisconsin on election night.
Whatever happen, it won’t be Mark Zuckerberg’s fault.
Truth will have to look out for itself. But we’ve seen before what can happen; and this brings us to the challenge of this moment.
In her account of the death of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explained the attack on truth this way: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true…”
This mixture of gullibility and world-weary cynicism, Arendt wrote, dispelled “the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds.”
Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.
The masters of this sort of propaganda understood that they could change their stories with impunity, because they would see their deceptions as a form of 8-dimensional chess.
The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Arendt understood the endgame here; a tsunami of lies isn’t aimed at getting people to believe what the propagandist is saying. Rather, it’s to induce chronic disbelief, or an indifferent shrug. Who knows what to believe? Who cares? What is truth?
“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lie, for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, “ she wrote, “but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
Even though he is getting pummeled from both ends of the political spectrum, Zuckerberg has carved out a safe space for himself. By not making judgments about truth (at least as far as political ads) he can claim to rise above the political scrum, while also avoiding accusations of bias. Without specific evidence, Elizabeth Warren has accused Facebook of making a secret deal with Trump to allow false ads during the campaign.
That seems unlikely, but Zuckerberg has nevertheless managed to insulate himself (at least for now) from presidential attacks. And he is doing it while posing as a champion of free speech.
Contra Zuckerberg, however, fact checking is not inconsistent with free speech and is decidedly not hostile to democratic norms. Truth is not antagonistic to freedom; think of it as the oxygen of democracy.
But, wrapped in his boundless self-regard, Zuckerberg avoids asking himself whether democracy can survive the asphyxiation of reality.
So he refuses to do what other media companies have done for years.
As the Washington Post noted, television networks and newspapers have long policed bogus ads. “Calling a candidate “corrupt” is acceptable; circulating a widely debunked defamatory hoax shouldn’t be.”
In other words, there will always be judgment calls and some of them will be controversial and sometimes the gatekeepers will get it wrong. But the difficulty of exercising judgment is not an argument for the abdication of responsibility. Especially when the stakes are so high.
Mark Zuckerberg won’t save us. But he’s wrong not to try.