Speaking at the Gaston Hall auditorium at Georgetown University, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made a robust defence of the social media platform, centered around freedom of speech. But many are unconvinced by the free speech arguments made by the Facebook founder and supremo.
“I am here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” Zuckerberg strongly asserted. Aside from the commercial considerations that Zuckerberg was clearly motivated by, it is also obvious that he feels strongly passionate about a platform that has grown beyond his wildest expectations since he first envisioned it.
And it is important to remember that the way that Facebook has developed, and its significance as a platform, is astronomically bigger than anything that could have been envisaged originally. Zuckerberg is effectively clinging on to a rocket that he long since lost control over, even if he nominally remains the head of the company.
Still, despite the note of optimism that Zuckerberg struck in his speech, many observers have reasonably pointed out that it failed to address several important issues related to the hugely successful Facebook. There are all kinds of privacy considerations that Facebook has done little to obviate, while Zuckerberg’s passionate defence of free speech rather missed the mark.
Critics would instead assert that the CEO of Facebook failed to announce any new features or initiatives, nor address many of the common criticisms of the social media platform. Facebook stands accused of providing misleading and biased information, manipulating voters, enabling hateful communities, and even playing a significant role in the aiding of genocide.
There aren’t necessarily easy answers to some of these problems, and the balance between free speech and hate speech can be an extremely difficult one to strike. Indeed, the apparently hateful, but often juvenile, individuals that have created such a toxic culture on platforms such as 8chan continually defend their behaviour by asserting free speech principles. And it is, on one level, difficult to argue against this legitimately.
However, the arguments made by Zuckerberg in his speech were too simplistic, and failed to account for, for example, the fact that he is willing to censor his own site when demanded by China. Facebook is banned in the restrictive nation, but by Zuckerberg’s own admission the site would love to be operative in the world’s most populous country.
In other words, when there is a commercial imperative to stymie free speech, Zuckerberg is only too happy to play ball.
Voice for the marginalized
The CEO of Facebook also confidently asserted that his social media site provides a voice for marginalized groups and people. There are many possible debates to have about this particular subject, but one obvious aspect of the social media system is that it profoundly rewards the popular, and has long since been criticized for having a negative impact on the self-worth of many people, by promoting unsustainable lifestyles and body images.
Perhaps Facebook isn’t the biggest culprit of this, certainly compared to the likes of Instagram. And is also isn’t necessarily directly the fault of Zuckerberg or Facebook But, equally, it does seem rather disingenuous to claim that Facebook is somehow a crusading representative of the social underclass.
Nonetheless, although Zuckerberg provided few answers that will satisfy the political critics of Facebook, one simple truth remains. If we don’t wish to participate in what has been labelled, sometimes quite justifiably, an intrusive social engineering project with a dubious ethos and overarching values…we can all exercise the choice to log off Facebook. For good.