By Kara Swisher Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.
May 26, 2019 761 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in April. Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times Image House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in April. Credit Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times
So, Fakebook it is.
This week, unlike YouTube, Facebook decided to keep up a video deliberately and maliciously doctored to make it appear as if Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk or perhaps crazy. She was not. She was instead the victim of an obvious dirty trick by a dubious outfit with a Facebook page called Politics Watch Dog.
The social media giant deemed the video a hoax and demoted its distribution, but the half-measure clearly didn’t work. The video ran wild across the system. Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism executive, Monika Bickert, drew the short straw and had to try to come up with a cogent justification for why Facebook was helping spew ugly political propaganda. “We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” she said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”
This is ridiculous. The only thing the incident shows is how expert Facebook has become at blurring the lines between simple mistakes and deliberate deception, thereby abrogating its responsibility as the key distributor of news on the planet.
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A manipulated video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that makes it seem as if she is slurring her words has spread across social media. Above, we compared it with the original video of her remarks on May 22. Credit Credit The New York Times
Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising. No other media could get away with spreading anything like this because they lack the immunity protection that Facebook and other tech companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups. Now it’s a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules. Mr. Cooper must be less accustomed than some of us to the way Silicon Valley tortures the concept of free speech until it screams for mercy, because Ms. Bickert’s answer left him looking incredulous.
Advertisement By conflating censorship with the responsible maintenance of its platforms, and by providing “rules” that are really just capricious decisions by a small coterie of the rich and powerful, Facebook and others have created a free-for-all with no consistent philosophy.
The Chewbacca mom video is sure fun, and so are New York Times articles, because classy journalism looks good on the platform. But the toxic stew of propaganda and fake news that is allowed to pour into the public river without filters?
Also A-O.K., in the clearly underdeveloped mind of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has been — try as he might with great earnestness — guiding his ship into dangerous waters. Don’t believe me? Listen to what came out of his mouth during a podcast interview with me less than a year ago, a comment that in hindsight makes his non-action against the Pelosi video look completely inevitable.
We had been talking about the vile Alex Jones, whom Mr. Zuckerberg had declined to remove from Facebook despite his having violated many of its policies. (This month Facebook finally did bar him from the platform). For some reason, presumably to make a greater point, he shifted the conversation to the Holocaust. It was a mistake, to say the least.
“I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
I was shocked, but I wanted to hear more, so I said briefly: “In the case of Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.”
Did he ever: “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.’’
Here was the internal dialogue in my head when he uttered this senseless jumble of words: What? What? What? Mr. Zuckerberg’s own pile of dumb mistakes were the same thing as anti-Semitic lies? The same as the calculatedly demented rantings of Mr. Jones? The same as the wily manipulations of Russia’s Internet Research Agency
Did he not realize the difference between problematic things said in good faith with those vomited up from the bowels of hate?
It was at that moment that I knew that Facebook was lost. And it’s been wandering ever since from one ethical quandary to the next. From the outside, the company can seem lazy and cynical, out to make money at the expense of just about anything or anyone, including Speaker Pelosi or an informed national electorate. It feels political too, as if its executives are making calculations based on nothing but what will keep the company free from trouble in these deeply partisan times.
And yet Facebook does remove content, such as posts it determines are a threat to public safety or from fake accounts.
Ms. Bickert, whom I have interviewed too and who certainly has made an effort to tame the platform, gamely tried to make this point to Mr. Cooper. “We aren’t in the news business. We’re in the social media business,” she said plaintively, as if that distinction could erase a thousand crimes taking place on the platform every day.
Not making these hard choices won’t work: The many indignities of being a Facebook user are making the platform a worse and worse place to be. So far, that has yet to infect the business itself, which is making money and continues to grow. But without a steadier hand at the wheel, Facebook cannot outrun a simple fact: It’s still Fakebook, and we already know how that story will end. Badly.