Facebook’s big free speech fail


MARK Zuckerberg has delivered his "unfiltered take" on the importance of free expression, before taking pre-approved questions from university students that couldn't ask about anything he'd just said.

The Facebook CEO eased into his 37 minute speech by telling the packed room of Georgetown students (and thousands livestreaming around the world) the website he made in college to rate women by attractiveness that grew into the world's biggest social media platform could have prevented the invasion of Iraq - if only it had been around one year earlier.

Live from Georgetown -- Standing For Voice and Free Expression.

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, 17 October 2019

"Back when I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq, and the mood on our campus was disbelief," Zuckerberg began on Thursday morning, US time.

"A lot of people felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives and the toll on soldiers and their families and our national psyche was severe, yet most of us felt like we were powerless to do anything about it.

"I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences then maybe it could have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving more people a voice gives power to the powerless and pushes society to get better over time."

The wild claim was one of many the 35-year-old Facebook founder and CEO made during his navel gazing edict on free speech - which his massive company has recently been accused of both curtailing and using as an excuse to let hate speech and misinformation proliferate online.

He also claimed his early version of Facebook was responsible for students at his university engaging more with their real-world community, expanding this claim to effectively take credit for the success of social action phenomena led by minority and marginalised groups.

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"When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they started more student groups, organised more businesses, and they even challenged some established ways of doing things around campus," Zuckerberg said.

The crowd at Georgetown University who packed in to see Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg deliver his 37-minute treatise on free speech and expression.
The crowd at Georgetown University who packed in to see Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg deliver his 37-minute treatise on free speech and expression.

Further showcasing his imperviousness to irony, Zuckerberg cited the rise and spread of the BlackLivesMatter and MeToo movements as something that "just wouldn't have been possible" without Facebook, minutes after invoking the American civil rights movement of the 20th century as an example of why voice was so important.

Zuckerberg founded Facebook in his Harvard University dorm room in 2004.

The social media platform grew from an earlier site that almost got him expelled called Facemash, where users would be presented with a pair of side-by-side photos of young women studying at Harvard and vote on which one was hotter.

Since then it's become more than a simple social media platform, and is now one of the largest companies in the world, which also owns other communications and sharing platforms WhatsApp and Instagram.

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While Zuckerberg doesn't agree with arguments that the hyper-connectedness of Facebook is bad for society, he is at least aware of them.

"Now some people believe that giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing people together," he said. "More people across the spectrum believe that achieving the political outcomes that they think matter is more important than every person having a voice and being heard, and I think that that's dangerous."

Zuckerberg said social media circumvented the "traditional gatekeepers" in politics and media but added that "has important consequences".

"I understand the concerns that people have about how tech platforms have centralised power, but I actually believe that the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralised power by putting it directly into people's hands."

At the heart of Zuckerberg's speech was an internal struggle over where to draw the line in policing and censoring content on Facebook.

He said it was important to keep violence, bullying and pornography off the platform because it hurt users and made them uncomfortable, and that Facebook had a responsibility to address the risks inherent in people using the platform to incite violence and undermine democracy.

Zuckerberg then went on to defend his company's refusal to apply the same fact checking processes introduced to combat fake news and misinformation to political advertising, getting ahead of any accusations of money-grubbing by saying the controversy political ads brought "isn't worth the very small part of our business they make up".

"Given the sensitivity around political ads, I've considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether," he said. "But political ads are an important part of voice - especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise.

"Banning political ads favours incumbents and whoever the media chooses to cover."

"We don't fact check political ads, and we don't do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying," Zuckerberg said.


He then used a fallacious "slippery slope" argument to claim banning political ads would lead to censoring things that weren't from political parties but were political in nature, such as ads relating to healthcare, immigration or "women's empowerment".

Facebook brought in $579.7 million from advertising in Australia last year, a very thin sliver of the $US55.2 billion it took around the world.

For the same period the company paid $11.8 million in tax in Australia, an effective tax rate of 2 per cent. If you played by the same rules you'd only pay around $1100 a year in taxes if you earned the median wage.

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In Australia, there is also no requirement for political advertising to be true, and social media isn't subject to the same "blackout" rules for political advertising as traditional media, meaning political ads can continue being shown all the way up to, and even on election day.

Zuckerberg rounded out his manifesto saying he agreed that Facebook shouldn't decide how free speech was restricted or allowed on its own, and called for "clearer rules for the internet".

He then announced Facebook would establish an "independent oversight board" where people could appeal decisions over content.

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Whether or not this independent oversight board moves faster ("and breaks things") than the glacial pace of Facebook's current appeal process remains to be seen.

Zuckerberg provided no further details on the board and buried the announcement right at the end of his speech, when many viewers had already tuned out.

Given nobody knew about the board prior to his speech, it's unlikely any of the pre-approved questions would have led to any further detail, but unfortunately there's no way for us to know for sure at this stage, because the Q&A portion of Zuckerberg's presentation wasn't livestreamed.

Do you think Facebook needs an external referee to decide what gets talked about on social media? Let us know what you think in the (moderated) comments below.