Facebook is in the midst of its worst scandal since Cambridge Analytica. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hammered by presidential candidates, Members of Congress, fellow tech moguls and virtually every major newspaper, magazine and television network. Hundreds of Facebook employees have signed a petition calling for him to change course.
What did Mr. Zuckerberg do to deserve this avalanche of criticism? Cave to Chinese censorship pressure, like some NBA players? Walk away from U.S. defense contracts for ideological reasons, like Google did last year?
No, the scandal is that Mr. Zuckerberg said two weeks ago that Facebook is committed to supporting free expression. Most scandalously he said his company, like broadcast stations, won’t fact-check candidate election ads. Instead it will allow disputed claims to be debated by the public and press in America’s democratic tradition.
This has many in politics and the media up in arms because they think it could re-elect Donald Trump in 2020, and they’ve wasted no time signaling to Mr. Zuckerberg that they’ll blame him if Mr. Trump wins. We doubt Mr. Zuckerberg favors Mr. Trump politically.
Yet the company is thinking beyond the current frenzied political environment. Politicians have been lying about one another for hundreds of years, and dragging Facebook into the election circus will damage the company’s credibility in the eyes of millions and undermine faith in the electoral process.
The media anger about Mr. Zuckerberg’s free-speech policy is especially odd. Shouldn’t reporters want to know what candidates are saying so they can dissect and report on it?
Instead journalists are offering sophisticated-sounding arguments for why political speech should be controlled by tech companies. One popular argument is that Facebook’s algorithm rewards appeals to emotion so legitimate debate can’t take place. Yet political advocacy in the U.S. has always included emotional appeals. If Facebook’s algorithms favor polarizing content, that’s a separate debate.
Others resent the way the platform has upended news delivery in a way that takes power from the press. “The news media have traditionally borne the responsibility for insuring that the actual purpose of the First Amendment is fulfilled,” said the New Yorker. It’s an unfortunate conceit of some in the media that they ought to have a monopoly on free expression to the exclusion of ordinary people and their elected representatives.
Facebook is also being attacked because Breitbart News has qualified for inclusion in its “News” feature which will be unveiled this week. This is said to prove Facebook is a right-wing platform in the tank for Mr. Trump. But about 200 outlets so far have qualified for inclusion based on neutral criteria, including liberal sites like Salon.com and CNN. (The Journal has also agreed to participate in Facebook’s News app.)
Media and political elites think they are advancing the public interest in demanding that Mr. Zuckerberg put his thumb on the political scales. Yet in the process they are showing why so many Americans have lost trust in them.