The Left Thinks Mark Zuckerberg Escaped Danger in Congress. The Right Sees It Very Differently.

 

Facebook doesn’t seem any closer to data privacy regulation, much less getting broken up, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day visit to Capitol Hill than before he came. That’s why Facebook stock rose so sharply during Zuckerberg’s testimony to the Senate and House. Investors saw the same thing everyone did: A smart, if slightly robotic, corporate chieftain easily answering or swatting away questions from tech-illiterate politicians. If Congress has only a tenuous grasp of how the social media platform’s ad-driven business model works, it’s probably not very likely Democrats and Republicans can agree on significant new rules constraining it anytime soon.

But as Team Facebook analyzes their boss’s performance, they should give special focus to his questioning by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz used his five minutes to grill Zuckerberg about his concern that “Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.” Among the examples Cruz cited: Facebook suppressing conservative stories from trending news in 2016, temporarily shutting down a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page in 2012, and blocking the Facebook page of President Trump supporters and video bloggers Diamond and Silk.

Zuckerberg didn’t specifically address Cruz’s examples of bias. And while conceding that Facebook’s Silicon Valley home was indeed “an extremely left-leaning place,” Zuckerberg also emphasized that he was “very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas.”

Now to many tech reporters covering the hearings, the exchange seemed like a distraction from more important issues like privacy and Russian meddling during the 2016 election. And rather than follow up on Cruz’s line of questioning, some merely dismissed it as Cruz trying to avoid the issue of his 2014 re-election campaign’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica. As the tech website Gizmodo put it, “Rather than discuss the $5.8 million Cruz’s campaign paid to a data firm that used the stolen Facebook information of 87 million people, Cruz wanted to insinuate that Zuckerberg is waging some sort of war on Christmas.”

But many on the right saw Cruz’s questioning as completely relevant and perhaps the highlight of the hearings. The Federalist, a Trumpy conservative site, rejoiced that “Ted Cruz savaged Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s tendency to shut down and silence conservatives and conservative ideas.” Another site, ConservativeHQ, called Cruz the “star of the show” who “nailed Zuckerberg’s liberal bias.” And even a cursory look at Facebook itself saw many right-leaning users expressing similar opinions.

Clearly Zuckerberg was not prepared to answer Cruz’s charges. But when asked about Diamond and Silk the next day in the House hearing, Zuckerberg was ready. He called the situation an “enforcement error.” (After Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony the day before, Facebook said it initially labeled Diamond and Silk content as “unsafe” before reconsidering.) That response earned a large font, all-cap headline from Breitbart: “ZUCK BEFORE HOUSE: SAYS NO BIAS. CONSERVATIVES NOT CENSORED, JUST ‘ENFORCEMENT ERROR’ … ”

The “techlash” on the right against Big Tech mostly isn’t about data privacy or foreign powers weaponizing platforms or concerns about monopoly and competition. Rather it’s just another front in America’s culture war. Many on the right see Silicon Valley as just another institution, like the media and higher education, that’s biased against conservatives. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been running a series of “Tech Tyranny” segments on his show highlighting supposed tech crimes such as helping China’s artificial intelligence effort and how tech is more addictive than opioids. But Carlson’s campaign against Big Tech actually started with a defense of James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired after writing a memo about the company’s “ideological echo chamber.” Other conservatives fear that Facebook will try to make up for Trump by helping throw the 2020 election to the Democrats.

Now in a country less beset by political tribalism and political opportunism, one might see Cruz’s various bias claims as isolated incidents. Facebook’s two billion users generate and share massive amounts of content. It’s not unreasonable to expect a mistake or two when monitoring it, as Zuckerberg responded when the issue came up during his House testimony. (Of course, tech firms would be wise to take the advice of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who advised Facebook “to lean over backwards to make sure that you are fair in protecting political speech, right or left… .”)

But that is not the country we live in. It often seems as if everything is political and sides must always be chosen. And that is why the risk of Washington eventually regulating Big Tech, perhaps recklessly so, is higher than it might appear right now. In other, more normal times, the right’s natural pro-market bias might lead them to defend America’s most valuable and innovative companies against thoughtless and ill-informed state intervention. But as #Resist Twitter incessantly reminds us, these are not normal times.

There are 13 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Cruz was elected to the Senate in 2012. He is up for re-election this year. Was your comment about his 2014 re-election campaign a typo?

    • #1
  2. Ralphie Member
    Ralphie
    @Ralphie

    What is a normal time? 

    • #2
  3. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    James, thanks for highlighting what is perhaps the most important issue of the hearings.

     

    Ted Cruz :

    “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

    This is a good provision. It means that, for example, if you run a blogging platform and someone posts a terrorist threat in the comments section, you’re not treated as the person making the threat. Without Section 230, many social media networks could be functionally unable to operate.

    In order to be protected by Section 230, companies like Facebook should be “neutral public forums.” On the flip side, they should be considered to be a “publisher or speaker” of user content if they pick and choose what gets published or spoken.

    As I expressed to Mark Zuckerberg, as a private business Facebook has a clear First Amendment right to publish whatever it wants on its website within the bounds of the law. The company can support political causes and oppose ones it disagrees with, just like a private citizen can speak his or her mind or agitate against opposing views.

    But if Facebook is busy censoring legal, protected speech for political reasons, the company should be held accountable for the posts it lets through. And it should not enjoy any special congressional immunity from liability for its actions.”

    Strictly speaking an argument can be made that Section 230 does not require “neutral public forums”, but Cruz’s key point has great validity:

    “In order to be protected by Section 230, companies like Facebook should be “neutral public forums.” On the flip side, they should be considered to be a “publisher or speaker” of user content if they pick and choose what gets published or spoken.” 

    Facebook clearly has censored reasonable political speech, and for such a powerful actor in Social Media to do so is very dangerous to the ideals of this country and to free speech everywhere. The question is what to do about it?

    • #3
  4. Bob W Member
    Bob W
    @WBob

    Conservatives instinctively understand why many campaign finance regulations, including those struck down in the Citizens United case, are a violation of free speech. They realize that money can exert a lot of influence in politics, but also that free political speech is not negotiable. In other words, it’s not that the arguments in favor of McCain-Feingold type restrictions are necessarily bad ones, it’s that when it comes to free political speech, no argument, no matter how compelling, by definition can ever be good enough to override the First Amendment.

    And yet when it comes to the influence exerted by these tech companies, conservatives seem to forget all this. The regulations which Cruz’s line of questioning seem call for seem to resemble the “Fairness Doctrine” which liberals always wanted to impose on old media.

    • #4
  5. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    James Pethokoukis: But that is not the country we live in. It often seems as if everything is political and sides must always be chosen. And that is why the risk of Washington eventually regulating Big Tech, perhaps recklessly so, is higher than it might appear right now. In other, more normal times, the right’s natural pro-market bias might lead them to defend America’s most valuable and innovative companies against thoughtless and ill-informed state intervention. But as #Resist Twitter incessantly reminds us, these are not normal times.

    JimP,

    I think that it desirable that internet “platform” companies like Facebook be required to disclose their algorithms for censoring content and their detailed policy instructions for their human censors. The presumption of an unbiased environment is an implied warranty even when no money has changed hands. The user by being a user is increasing the advertising revenues of Facebook and that should be considered their payment to Facebook for the unbiased service. That, in fact, is exactly what Google and Facebook’s business model is all about.

    The Internet is the result of a Free society. We should not curtail the Freedom here but create appropriate new standards of behavior for good users and good providers online behavior. Otherwise, Big Government will regulate the Internet out of existence and everybody loses.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #5
  6. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I’d just like to take this opportunity to mention that I am mystified about all this “private data” on Facebook that the media keeps blathering about. Like any sane person, I have always assumed that anything posted on any social media platform is not only going to be public, but also is going to remain on line forever. So what do all these people find so terrifying? That someone is going to learn their answer to “Rachel or Monica?” and use it to change the outcome of the next election?

    • #6
  7. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    I’d just like to take this opportunity to mention that I am mystified about all this “private data” on Facebook that the media keeps blathering about. Like any sane person, I have always assumed that anything posted on any social media platform is not only going to be public, but also is going to remain on line forever. So what do all these people find so terrifying? That someone is going to learn their answer to “Rachel or Monica?” and use it to change the outcome of the next election?

    It seems to me this whole thing only became a “scandal” when it was revealed the Cambridge Analytica used the data to help elect Donald Trump (cue ominous music).

    People don’t seem to have a problem with big corporations using their data to sell them soft drinks, or to target likely Obama voters, but anything that might explain the otherwise mysterious and inexplicable election of Trump automatically becomes a giant scandal…

     

    • #7
  8. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    People don’t seem to have a problem with big corporations using their data to sell them soft drinks, or to target likely Obama voters, but anything that might explain the otherwise mysterious and inexplicable election of Trump automatically becomes a giant scandal…

    Joe,

    Oh so exactly so. The magic narrative goes on and on. One might wonder whether these people are actually capable of some form of independent thought. This is more like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #8
  9. jeannebodine Member
    jeannebodine
    @jeannebodine

    Nothing like a good, strong whiff of condescension for the proles at The Federalist, “a Trumpy conservative site”, from our betters, experts in all things. 

    • #9
  10. Gumby Mark Thatcher
    Gumby Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    I’d just like to take this opportunity to mention that I am mystified about all this “private data” on Facebook that the media keeps blathering about. Like any sane person, I have always assumed that anything posted on any social media platform is not only going to be public, but also is going to remain on line forever. So what do all these people find so terrifying? That someone is going to learn their answer to “Rachel or Monica?” and use it to change the outcome of the next election?

    This is about more than just your postings. FB can track what else you are looking at online, even if not via FB. If you have an android phone, FB scooped up your contacts and can track who you speak with. It can then also collect information on your contacts even if they are not on FB.

    • #10
  11. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    I’d just like to take this opportunity to mention that I am mystified about all this “private data” on Facebook that the media keeps blathering about. Like any sane person, I have always assumed that anything posted on any social media platform is not only going to be public, but also is going to remain on line forever. So what do all these people find so terrifying? That someone is going to learn their answer to “Rachel or Monica?” and use it to change the outcome of the next election?

    This is about more than just your postings. FB can track what else you are looking at online, even if not via FB. If you have an android phone, FB scooped up your contacts and can track who you speak with. It can then also collect information on your contacts even if they are not on FB.

    Ha! Facebook has had three years to try, and they have never even come close to suggesting a new “friend” who I would want to friend, or had even heard of. They can’t shove an ad in front of me for any product in which I have the least bit of interest. The news stories they suggest for me – well, let’s just say I have never clicked through to any of them. Not once. For an omniscient behemoth they sure do seem to be inept.

    • #11
  12. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Zuck and friends screwed up and did not deliver the HRC POTUS that was preordained since her husband left office. This was a bit of pay back and a reminder that the technos better get their house in order and deliver 2018 and all future elections. Big data has made many promises, Obama proved those promises can and do work. Trump stole the keys of big data and won. This is the Democrats making sure that a non Democrat does not steal the keys again.

    • #12
  13. Gumby Mark Thatcher
    Gumby Mark
    @GumbyMark

    I’m so old I remember when a presidential campaign using Facebook data was considered cool and hip and the campaign that didn’t was a bunch of old fogey losers.

    • #13

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.