The Politics of Public-Private Censorship

A month ago the novelist Jay Seliger asked “Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?” After two years of criticism of the company, he noted, its users are still on board. Indeed, you might have to pay them a $1,000 to give up Facebook for one year. Seliger remarks that an earlier New York Times story “reads a lot like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’ actual lives.”

Seliger asserts that Facebook is “a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role” in the election of Donald Trump. (On Rene Girard see this). I don’t know about the culpability of the “media ecosystem,” but the ferocity of the campaign against Facebook suggests something more at work than a concern about privacy and the use of online data.

Many people were horrified and surprised by Trump’s election. But Trump himself, his campaign, and those who voted for him bear responsibility for his election; to be more accurate those who voted for him in a small number of states like Michigan and Wisconsin put him in the White House.

It is difficult to believe that Facebook’s managers were dumb enough to take sides in a presidential campaign, least of all the side of Donald Trump. Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, says plausibly that Facebook gave the campaign as much assistance as it would any multi-million dollar advertising customer. The company sent a person to be a “living manual” to the platform and to fix it quickly when it did not work.

But maybe Facebook’s “sins” were more passive than active. After all, Facebook might have prevented Trump’s victory by refusing to sell advertising to his campaign and by suppressing a significant part of advocacy for his election on the platform. Technically I imagine both could be done. Both might well be legal; they would without doubt be constitutional. Facebook has no obligation to protect speech on its platform. Perhaps more than a few people believe Facebook helped elect Donald Trump not because of what it did but because of what it did not do.

In this light, some, though not all, of the criticisms of Facebook may be a way of posing a question to Mark Zuckerberg: “This campaign against you and your company must be unpleasant and costly. The bad publicity and even government investigations might go away if Facebook refuses to sell ads to Trump’s re-election campaign and suppresses at least the worst speech of his supporters. Also, no Facebook personnel to help them. How about it?” Zuckerberg might be rational, if not wise, to take that deal.

But, of course, that would not be the end of it. Trump supporters and the Right generally think Silicon Valley have it in for them. Facebook would go from scapegoat for the left to a major target of Trump’s re-election effort. A Trump victory would mean an administration bent on revenge against Facebook. A Trump defeat would turn Facebook into a scapegoat for the other half of a polarized America. In this latter case, Republicans too might end up asking Mark Zuckerberg what he’s willing to do to make the pain end.

In both cases, we will end up with what few want: regulation of social media determined by fear of a president or a party in power, now or in the future. Another limit on government and politics would have fallen by the way.

Facebook may moderate (and suppress) content on its platform. But if that moderation is done under credible threats by government officials, any suppression of speech looks a lot like censorship.  We may be on a road where permitted private policies are in service to forbidden government goals. It’s not a road we want to follow to its end.