The week Mark Zuckerberg tried to buy back his soul

The founder and CEO of Facebook finally wants to prove he’s serious about democracy. That should terrify the rest of us.

With two months remaining until the 2020 US Presidential election, Facebook has announced new measures intended to limit disinformation and confusion on its platform, including barring new political ads in the week before the election and rules to limit claims of false victories by redirecting users to accurate information on results. In an exclusive interview on CBS This Morning to roll out the news, Gayle King asked Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg about President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the 2020 election will be rigged against him. Zuckerberg looked earnestly into his webcam from Silicon Valley and said, “I certainly think that anyone who’s saying that the election is going to be fraudulent, I think that that’s problematic. And I think additional context needs to be added to that.”

This news from the company comes just days after an announcement that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would donate $300 million to charities concerned with election security, funding efforts to recruit poll workers, supply personal protective equipment, and set up drive-through voting, among other tactics. These twin announcements, choreographed in such proximity, are surely intended to frame Zuckerberg and his company as responsible stewards of a platform that reaches more than 200 million Americans and 2.5 billion users worldwide, and to address critics who have long argued Facebook does too little to preserve democracy and that its business model is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy discourse.

Certainly, Zuckerberg has come a long way since 2016, when days after the election he famously said claims that disinformation on his platform affected the election were “a pretty crazy idea.” These new measures are perhaps the most sweeping yet to quash the worst abuses of the platform, and Zuckerberg is clear he will apply them equally to all users, including Donald Trump himself. But with just sixty days until the election, there is cause for great concern that news of these efforts are less of a reason to be optimistic about what is going to unfold, and more of a sign of the chaos to come.

Why worry? Three reasons:

1- It’s an admission of guilt. Zuckerberg has claimed since 2016 that his company is taking adequate measures to address the various externalities his platform has produced, from the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories to the proliferation of harassment, bigotry and real world violence. This announcement- urgent as it might seem- is a tacit admission that none of it has been enough, and that the situation is dire. With access to more data on the degradation of the American discourse than perhaps any other person on the planet, such an admission by Zuckerberg just sixty days from the election is surely a concern. Facebook also announced this week it will provide more data to researchers about how the election plays out on its platform- but the findings won’t contribute to solutions in this cycle.

2- It’s too little, too late. While numbers like $300 million sound big to the average American, and certainly denying political advertising on his site in the final week before the election will limit his company’s profits, the reality is these numbers are inconsequential in the scale of Zuckerberg’s wealth or his company’s revenues. Critics have argued that the philanthropic gift is a drop in the bucket when you consider the scale of the spread of disinformation on the platform, such as the proliferation of the Q Anon conspiracy theory which has been embraced by the President and his campaign, or the reach of far-right outlets that use the platform to incite hate and fear. As we head into a potentially contested election and the threat of violence that entails, the die seems already cast.

3- The goal is not a real solution, but rather absolution. The announcement bears all the hallmarks of a typical Facebook PR campaign, with details of the new measures carefully supplied to the media on embargo and a network morning show appearance arranged to provide supporting soundbites from Zuckerberg himself. Clearly the message is designed in part to put distance between Zuckerberg and Trump, who are regarded by critics to have developed a symbiotic relationship. It comes with the typical corporate speak from Zuckerberg- he says Trump’s claims that his defeat would be based on fraud, sure to engulf the country in violence if his supporters believe it, are “problematic” in the same way he says allowing a right wing militia group to use Facebook to organize violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin after the murder of Jacob Blake by police was “an operational mistake.” We’re left to wonder if this is a change of heart for Zuckerberg, or just another political calculation in his own interest.

“I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook, announcing these changes. If America is able to get through this election cycle without violence and with confidence in the result, Zuckerberg will certainly claim these measures contributed to that outcome, and go on building his “global community.” If not, we’ll spend more years analyzing what went wrong- no doubt pouring over more diabolical abuses by Russians, right wing extremists, conspiracy theorists and, indeed, our embittered neighbors that contributed to a serious challenge to the American experiment. We’re all in this information war now- Zuckerberg is just slightly tweaking the rules.

Problematic, indeed.

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