Mark Zuckerberg’s recent media blitz included a lot of scripted lines that belie his intentions—such as his assertion during a cozy chat with News Corp CEO Robert Thomson that journalism is crucial for democracy—and one that rings strikingly, resoundingly true: His claim at an October 17 speech at Georgetown University that his views on free expression were shaped by his collegiate frustrations over the failure of the mainstream media to expose the weaknesses of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.
The comment passed with relatively little notice, except among skeptics who saw it as a self-serving, ex-post-facto justification for Facebook’s reluctance to impose constraints on its users’ political assertions. But it was a rare personal admission from one of the least-known and most privacy-obsessed of moguls, and offered an organic, true-to-his-experiences explanation for his decisions at Facebook, many of which have proved to be ruinous for the mainstream media. It turns out it wasn’t just the profit motive that drove Facebook to become the prime source of information around the world; Zuckerberg wished to supplant the mainstream media out of something closer to real animus.
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“When I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq,” he explained. “The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives. The toll on our soldiers, families and our national psyche was severe, and most of us felt powerless to stop it. I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.”
This is the closest Zuckerberg has ever come to acknowledging a formative event, an aha moment, that shapes his perceptions of the relative merits of the mainstream media and social media. And it feels authentic to the moment; by late 2003, when the 19-year-old computer whiz was pondering the world from a Cambridge dorm room, it had started to dawn on the country that many of the justifications for the Iraq war were faulty—especially the reports of weapons of mass destruction. Young people rightly extended their anger from the Bush administration to the mainstream media that had failed to alert the country to the flimsiness of the government’s case.
If there was any doubt that those resentments linger, Zuckerberg laced his speech with encomiums to the fresh, clean air of direct democracy and backhanded swipes at the mildewed professional media. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world—a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he declared. “People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”
He defended political ads on Facebook as a voice for the voiceless, saying he considered banning them but reversed himself because “political ads are an important part of the voice—especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”
The specter of a 35-year-old mogul making off-the-cuff decisions about how much speech (or “voice”) is healthy for society engenders a queasy feeling. It suggests that Elizabeth Warren and others may be right that too much monopolistic power exists on one platform— especially one that coyly presents itself as an innocent conduit for information while blithely acknowledging its governing power over constitutional liberties. But pending future action, such power is indeed vested in the character and values of Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg’s criticism of mainstream media might be honestly earned. Like Vietnam before it, the debate over the Iraq war dominates the political attitudes of a big slice of the generation that grew up around it. But it also represents only one window on the much larger, and more complicated, question of how best to provide a check and balance to the power of government, and to properly inform the populace. Zuckerberg may have come to his views sincerely, through his own impressions. Like other youthful conversions, they may be very hard to shake. But they aren’t remotely the last word on the question.
For while Zuckerberg may be open about his intentions, he can seem almost willfully blind to their consequences. In his speech, he tries to capture the long arc of American history, veering from the civil rights movement to the repression of socialists during World War I to the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. He quotes Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. But he never mentions the words “conspiracy theory” or “Donald Trump.”
That left a ghost in the lecture hall at Georgetown, shadowing all of Zuckerberg’s pronouncements and justifications: the abject failure of his chosen mode of communication in the 2016 election, a lapse that threatens to recur if not corrected and that carries more enduring consequences for America than the sins of the mainstream media in the early 2000s.
Back when a handful of major news outlets held outsized influence over the national political dialogue, it was common to rail against these unelected gatekeepers. By habitually returning to the mean, insisting on reporting whose candidacy seemed most viable and whose views comported with Main Street assumptions, those media arbiters perpetuated a bland centrism, or so the theory went. They chopped the ends off of the political spectrum, left and right. People who challenged the system had to struggle to be taken seriously.
This critique found a persuasive advocate in the late Ross Perot, who happened to be both a fan of conspiracy theories (particularly regarding POWs) and the CEO of a data firm. Almost three decades ago, when the only web on anyone’s mind was Charlotte’s, Perot envisioned a running national plebiscite, in which average citizens voted like senators. They would simply plug their choices into their home computers, thereby diminishing the importance of Congress and the media’s control of the national debate surrounding its actions.
Perot’s vision of a daily Brexit has yet to come to pass, but his desire to shred the media filter and purify the political process by giving every citizen a seat at the debate has captured the imagination of technological innovators; indeed, whether Zuckerberg and other later-generation innovators know it or not, they are the avatars of Perot’s vision—the believers in technology’s ability to empower individuals over institutions, whose development over decades and even centuries marked them as relics of an earlier age.
Direct democracy, in which individuals vote not for representatives but for actual legislation, may appear, at first glance, to be the purest distillation of America’s democratic ideals. And its first cousin, the every-person-has-a-voice ethos of the Facebook group and Twitter feed, may seem to be its free-speech equivalent. In fact, both run completely counter to the intentions of the nation’s founders.
When framing the Constitution, they were plainly skeptical of the unfettered passions of the majority. They labored to create roadblocks that would force a deeper consideration of issues, allowing clearer heads to prevail. The bicameral legislature. Separation of powers. The Bill of Rights. The Electoral College.
Within this procedural maze, freedom of speech bestowed on every citizen the right to express his or her views. But the First Amendment didn’t end there. It created a separate grant of freedom of the press. While judges have sometimes labored to define what constitutes “the press,” the spirit of the amendment is clear: Simply allowing everyone to share their opinions isn’t enough. The framers wanted to nurture an institutional counterweight to the government—a media watchdog.
“The liberty of the press was the tyrant’s scourge—it was the true friend and firmest supporter of civil liberty; therefore why pass it by in silence?” argued James Lincoln, a delegate to the South Carolina Convention that debated the Constitution in 1788.
Even with the special constitutional protection, the power of the press wasn’t—and isn’t—absolute; judges continued to allow media organizations to be sued for libel or slander—for wrongfully damaging a person’s reputation. The history of the free press has been every bit as messy and opinionated as that of the nation, but these court rulings established guardrails that pushed the development of the media in a fact-based direction. Made-up stories, conspiracy theories, mendacious attacks—these didn’t cease to exist, but any reputable (and deep-pocketed) publishers would suffer them at their own peril.
The dawn of the internet eliminated any barriers to entry for the media. No longer was a costly printing process necessary to publish journalism; no longer did the largest, most established outlets have unusual access to readers, viewers and the advertising dollars that came with them. If the mainstream media were to survive in this new world, it would need to rely on the trust and credibility built up over decades.
This is the point at which Zuckerberg, who matriculated at Harvard in 2002, entered the history of the media. George W. Bush was pressing for war in Iraq, a somewhat surprising reaction to terrorist attacks that were neither backed by Iraq nor perpetrated by Iraqis. His primary justification—that Iraq’s president had defied United Nations resolutions in order to develop weapons systems that, if shared with terrorists, could cause massive damage to the United States—struck a sympathetic, but still uneasy, chord with a population reeling from the 9/11 attacks.
The mainstream media, whose coverage had often reflected the patriotic unity that followed 9/11, struggled to come to grips with the Bush administration’s assertions. The baleful warnings of a wartime president received sweeping attention; so, too, did some outlets appear to validate the administration’s claims via unnamed sources and experts—many of whom later turned out to be simply repackaging the administration’s line.
The result looked, to young people especially, like an abdication of duty for an institution predicated on providing an independent, fact-based check on power. Zuckerberg wasn’t alone in his dismay.
When the reckoning finally came—Iraq had not, in fact, developed those weapons—the mainstream media fell back on justifications that were honest but insufficient: Some reporters and news organizations had indeed raised doubts about Bush’s case for war; the stories that appeared to corroborate the administration’s positions were based on legitimate sources and vetted under established journalistic procedures.
Of course, the fact that such a lapse could occur without violating journalistic procedures should have been a tipoff. If the rules were broken, there would be an easy fix; if they weren’t, then the rules themselves required examination. Not much happened. Individual outlets defended their reporters and editors. Journalism schools, which have sometimes struggled to find a purpose, failed to seize the moment to apply much academic scrutiny. Media foundations soon got caught up in coping with the structural collapse of the newspaper business model, a seemingly greater threat than lingering distrust from the prewar Iraq coverage.
And Mark Zuckerberg’s doubts were left to fester.
A week after his Georgetown speech, Zuckerberg finally unveiled the long-planned Facebook News, a feed featuring mainstream media content. Facebook will, for the first time, provide licensing fees to publishers, including POLITICO. The precise payment formula is unknown, though it reportedly ranges from the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for smaller publishers to multimillion dollars for the largest ones. Both the licensing fees and the effort to provide a separate channel for professional news content have been hailed as correctives for past oversights.
The praise masks a certain amount of grumbling about having to take crumbs from Facebook’s table—many outlets seemed to feel that there was little choice but to adhere to Facebook’s terms, given the power differential between the social network and the news networks. Part of that power stems from the fact that Facebook, unlike the news networks, is not considered a publisher itself, and thus doesn’t have to vet content for libel or slander. Its giant audience can pass around material—fake or otherwise—without any liability attaching to Facebook itself. Thus, the social network is free to celebrate the fact that, as Zuckerberg put it at Georgetown, “With Facebook, more than 2 billion people now have a greater opportunity to express themselves.”
Alas, the true threat to the free press isn’t in Facebook’s failure to offer enough licensing fees—it’s in that direct-democratic, anything-goes model of communication that Zuckerberg extols, because the 2 billion largely unfettered commentators don’t operate within the same set of standards and constraints, legal or professional, as the mainstream media. About a decade ago, it was common to argue that the internet was revealing a purer form of information, that the millions of eyes and ears of dedicated users were applying an organic truth test that far exceeded any that could be provided by the blue pencils of editors. That idea promptly crashed and burned on a pyre of fake news, conspiracy theories, hate speech and disinformation.
It’s a sad development. Gaining a vehicle to challenge prevailing wisdom—whether from the government or the mainstream media—was certainly an advancement for society. The days of a few news outlets controlling the national dialogue don’t look entirely sunny, even in the rearview mirror. But the notion that spreading the news virally through Facebook pages and groups—even if scrubbed of the 3,500 different ads posted millions of times by Russian agents in 2016—provides a healthier source of information than the old-fashioned press is harder to sustain.
Ironies abound. The fact that the Facebook style of news sharing has diminished the influence of the professional media may feel like just deserts, the Old Testament punishment for failures in the run-up to the Iraq war. And Zuckerberg is the David slaying this particular Goliath. But what, then, of the fact that his cure seems far worse than the disease, at least in terms of putting vetted facts before the public?
The most logical test of Zuckerberg’s faith in his “Fifth Estate” would be the one posed by him, implicitly, in his Georgetown speech: Revisit, if only for the purposes of argument, the tragic days leading up to the Iraq war and imagine if a clearer, sharper picture of the truth would have emerged if Facebook had existed then. People would certainly have embraced the chance to find news that suits them—more skepticism for skeptics, more lurid reports of Saddam Hussein’s evils for those who yearned to “fight them over there.” Others, including political activists and perhaps foreign governments, would have produced copious amounts of disinformation designed to lure readers into sync with their agendas. And, as young Mark Zuckerberg wished for, somewhere in the bottomless pile of charges and countercharges might well have existed some useful, truthful information.
But even in this reimagined past, there would be only one great hope—that the mainstream media would have spotted the truth and run with it, fulfilling its constitutionally protected mission to provide valid information on which people can act.