Mark Zuckerberg did not ban Trump to save democracy, he banned him to save Facebook
For years, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook turned a blind eye to everything the ultra-right and Trumpists did on the platform. All in the name of free speech.
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It is no coincidence that on the day US lawmakers confirmed the US Election results and formalised the win of Joe Biden, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a ban on Donald Trump. Zuckerberg banning Donald Trump on Facebook and Instagram, with a weirdly-worded dictate where the ban is “indefinite” as well as “for at least the next two weeks”, seems like a morally-upright and principled tech CEO standing up to stop the abuse of his platform. But like everything else that nowadays comes out of Silicon Valley, it only seems like that. The reality is different. It is a move as self-serving and odious as it can be.
The ban on Trump has nothing to do with saving democracy, as Zuckerberg says in his post. It is not about not letting Trump “undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden”. It is a volte-face, an attempt to change colours before the new US administration takes the power and goes after Facebook.
The ban on Trump has nothing to do with saving democracy, as Zuckerberg says. (Photo: Reuters)
Consider this: for years, Zuckerberg and Facebook turned a blind eye to everything the ultra-right and Trumpists did on the platform. It allowed them to communicate, to meet together, run campaigns that have no place in a civilised society, and amplify hate posts. All in the name of free speech. Facebook allowed and defended its actions again and again when its platforms were used to distribute misinformation and fake news. That too in the name of free speech.
Three years ago, Zuckerberg defended hate speech. He told Recode, “The approach that we’ve taken to false news is not to say, you can’t say something wrong on the internet. I think that that would be too extreme. Everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they get a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that.”
Since then, some of his views have “evolved”. The evolution has been a slow process. In fact, it has been so slow that stuff — outright lies, harassment, call for violence, blatant hate speech and then some more — were allowed on Facebook, even now, almost until someone, like a journalist, or a politician, or a group of people, point it out to Facebook and then threaten with bad press or regulation. Even then, even under pressure, Facebook is reluctant to act.
It has only acted when it has realised that not acting is going to significantly harm its bottom line, which is profit. This is the reason why the company cracked down on some hate speech in the US when some advertisers decided to boycott Facebook and Instagram. This is also the reason why late last year, when winds of change began in the US and it looked like Trump would lose the elections, in October 2020 Zuckerberg’s thinking “evolved” on the matter of Holocaust deniers on Facebook.
There is an interesting line in the post that Zuckerberg wrote last October.
He wrote: "My own thinking has evolved as I've seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech. Drawing the right lines between what is and isn't acceptable speech isn't straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance."
When he says “current state of the world”, Zuckerberg means to say “rising anti-Semitism”. But a cynical reader will see something else in those words. A cynical reader will interpret the “current state of the world” as the world in which Facebook is going to face regulatory scrutiny for letting some extremely bad people use and misuse its platform. And the cynical readers would be right.
Facebook under Zuckerberg is all about convenience, about profit, about bending the way the wind is blowing. There is nothing there in terms of principles. Like many other tech companies, Facebook might have built its empire on the grand words — bringing people together, free speech, community and all that nonsense — but it too is hollow like the rest of the Silicon Valley.
And it is this convenience that has led to Zuckerberg banning Trump on Facebook and Instagram. Out of power, Trump now can’t hit back. He is down and out, and Zuckerberg is now only too happy to kick him, particularly when it can also help Facebook deal with the regulatory challenges that it has been facing. The company is already under investigation over its anti-competitive practices and in the coming days, the Democrats and Biden administration are going to take a very close look at the empire Zuckerberg has created.
It is not about principles. So far, we have seen that for Facebook, it never is. This is the reason why in India, Facebook gladly allows some politicians and groups — Bajrang Dal as the WSJ report noted — to say whatever they want to say or share, even if these sayings lead to poisoning of the society, even direct material harm to people in real work. Similarly, across the world, the company will continue to play pally with regimes, even if these regimes use Facebook in a way it should not be. That is until the winds change, and then Facebook and Zuckerberg change too and bend the way the wind is blowing.