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Some Alabama free speech during the Selma-to-Montgomery march. US Library of Congress

At Georgetown University yesterday, Facebook bossman Mark Zuckerberg gave a great big speech about free speech to explain why he won't do anything about false political ads, even when they included demonstrable lies, not just shadings of opinion. He was a regular John Stuart Mill on digital media's great power to let the people be heard, and insisted that the beauty of Free Speech is that it brought us the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention all the anime porn you can download. And he didn't say anything new at all, except that it was coming from the guy whose company's mistakes involving what reaches readers can be a matter of life and death, like when Facebook literally helped spread genocidal messaging in Burma. But he's very sorry about that, and has installed a patch that should reduce genocides quite a bit.

There really wasn't anything all that new in his argument: The best answer to offensive speech is more speech, and the marketplace of ideas will make sure the truth is known, and please never mind that those with the most money can extend their speech farther and louder while Facebook makes huge profits.

Zuck certainly sparked some negative engagement, however, when he suggested Facebook somehow embodies the ideals of civil rights heroes, who were fighting for the right to be treated as full human beings under the law, not for the beauty of unregulated expression.


The zillionaire Harvard dropout gives it the good old "college try" (more about which in a moment), invoking Frederick Douglass, who is doing a great job and being recognized more and more, especially in memes:

Throughout history, we've seen how being able to use your voice helps people come together. We've seen this in the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass once called free expression "the great moral renovator of society." He said "slavery cannot tolerate free speech." Civil rights leaders argued time and again that their protests were protected free expression, and one noted: "Nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds."

Zuckerberg also name-checks Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" as an example of speech that broke through government attempts to silence unpopular ideas:

In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression. We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.

We saw this when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was unconstitutionally jailed for protesting peacefully. We saw this in the efforts to shut down campus protests against the Vietnam War. We saw this way back when America was deeply polarized about its role in World War I, and the Supreme Court ruled that socialist leader Eugene Debs could be imprisoned for making an anti-war speech.

YOU DON'T WANT TO BE BULL CONNOR AND PUT MARTIN LUTHER KING BACK IN JAIL EVEN AFTER HE WAS ASSASSINATED, DO YOU? That's why Facebook pages full of funny jokes about what wingnuts think should be done to Ilhan Omar must not be suppressed. You're free to reply "that is an inaccurate statement!" It all works out.

Fair enough, we should not put Martin Luther King in free speech jail, then. But we should also point out, as does NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill in a Washington Post op-ed, the Civil Rights movement saw free speech as a tool, not an end in itself. King himself wasn't merely targeted with vigorous arguments; he was targeted by the southern power structure and by the US government with lies, defamation, and violence. The FBI used dirty tricks to try to convince him to commit suicide. If Facebook had been around in 1965 and a politician paid for it, no doubt it would have run the image up top, even though the school was no more a "communist training school" than Tucker Carlson is a "journalist."

King's daughter, Bernice King, offered to sit down and have a chat with Zuckerberg about her father and the "marketplace of ideas," which also included beatings, bombings, and a nice George Wallace campaign volunteer named James who was convinced, through free speech, that words were insufficient to protect white power from an agitator like King.

Disinformation isn't just speech -- it's a weapon, sometimes a deadly one. (Don't worry, says Zuckerberg -- Facebook has algorithms to kill fake accounts as soon as they're created, and purchasers of political ads have to prove they're real people.)

Ifill isn't at all persuaded by Zuck's claim that Facebook won't allow voter suppression, and gives a hypothetical-but-only-barely example:

Imagine a candidate is running for sheriff in a border-state county. On the Sunday night before Election Day, the candidate posts the following on Facebook: "If you're an illegal, you will not vote in our election Tuesday. Only citizens, legally registered to vote in our county are able to vote. We'll have an armed citizen patrol watch on duty. Our citizens patrol will be out in force outside the polls, exercising our Second Amendment rights and protecting the integrity of our elections. If you're illegal, you and anyone who tries to help you is going to jail."

If this were a flier posted in a Latino community, we would recognize it as an attempt at voter suppression. But posted on Facebook by a candidate, such a post would be part of the "newsworthy" content that Zuckerberg believes will spark debate.

Zuckerberg, amusingly, kicked off his speech with a fake history of his own company, noting that Facebook got started just after the start of the Iraq war:

The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives. The toll on soldiers, families and our national psyche was severe, and most of us felt powerless to stop it. I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.

Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus.

Tech bloggers had no end of fun pointing out that his original site, "FaceMash," existed for the sake of rating the attractiveness of other Harvard students. It wasn't out there publishing resistance manifestos to stop the war.

Still, we have to admit that despite all the hackneyed free speech slogans (for more speech on the matter, check out this skeptical take on Free Speech absolutism), we have to admit Zuckerberg makes a good point when he wonders about the mechanics of sorting OK speech from dangerous speech:

No one tells us they want to see misinformation. That's why we work with independent fact checkers to stop hoaxes that are going viral from spreading. But misinformation is a pretty broad category. A lot of people like satire, which isn't necessarily true. A lot of people talk about their experiences through stories that may be exaggerated or have inaccuracies, but speak to a deeper truth in their lived experience. We need to be careful about restricting that.

Huh. We could get him in touch with the editrix of a political satire blog whose Facebook reach has been throttled because it did "clickbait" -- in headlines that directly quoted real newsmakers. So maybe the dipshit has a point.

[WaPo / Vox / WaPo]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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