Facebook, Russia and Americans

This post follows my post yesterday about Facebook taking down fake accounts that “helped promote more than three dozen events in the last 15 months, most of them protesting the policies of President Donald Trump or promoting left-leaning causes.” The posts, thought to be supported by Russian operatives, “sought to work alongside legitimate groups organizing rallies and protests in the U.S.” 

So this is not just about the Russians. Americans also associated with the pages for political reasons. One page drew 84,000 likes. Other similar groups, supported by Americans, associated with, and spoke with the pages. (Their queries were not answered). 

As I wrote yesterday, Facebook was well within their rights to take down the pages. They did so because the accounts were fake and thus violated their community standards. Facebook would have had the right to take the pages down because of the Russian support or for “protesting the policies of Donald Trump or promoting left-leaning causes.” But to have the right is not the same as exercising it. Facebook wisely stayed away from the Russian issue and of course, did not remove the pages because of their content. 

But a fact remains: Facebook deprived Americans of their ability to associate with or speak with others for political purposes. It’s not a good look even though the neutral application of community standards does justify the takedown. 

Set Russia aside for a moment and consider the American part of the story. The deleted pages said things some Americans wanted to hear and supported. Members of Congress might find such speech “divisive” or “disinformation.” Apparently some Americans disagreed: they presumably saw the speech as informative and helpful.

In the United States, by culture and by law, we have free speech so people can learn about and evaluate politics and much else. The people who saw the deleted pages seemed to have engaged and assessed the material. “It was the truth about our people,” Victor Perez, a construction worker in Salt Lake City said of a deleted page that, the Wall Street Journal reports, “used divisive memes to promote Native American and Hispanic culture.” 

Yet the same article quotes experts who say allowing such pages will push the Victor Perezs of the world toward extremism while undercutting trust in “legitimate political activists.” In other words, speech online needs to be managed or really bad things will happen. 

But we have such a management system already. 

Individuals have the right and responsibility to inform themselves critically about politics and much else. They have the right to associate with one another to discuss ideas and to persuade others. They can reject bad ideas. Indeed, we trust that they will. Do people actually believe in these ideals? 

The Constitution prevents the government from improving social outcomes by preventing speech and association. Facebook has a right to govern its platform, but we might expect they will only remove users who violate neutral rules. After all, Mark Zuckerberg endorses the American view of free speech

The rest of us should stop expecting internet intermediaries like Facebook to be guardians of truth and wholesome speech.