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Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s Political Theater

Facebook and Twitter are the subjects of intense inquiry and scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats, and their CEOs are playing their parts in politics’ red-versus-blue polarization

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress several times in the past couple of years to rehearse his deep contrition for his company’s role in disseminating “fake news,” while defending his company against other concerns. Last year, two Senate committees interviewed Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about data privacy and propaganda campaigns; South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook had become a monopoly. Last week, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Zuckerberg about misleading political advertising on Facebook in a House Financial Services Committee hearing about Facebook’s proposed cryptocurrency, Libra. California Representative Maxine Waters accused Zuckerberg of giving politicians “a license to lie.” Democrats want Zuckerberg to mitigate his website’s role in spreading misinformation, and Republicans want Zuckerberg to reckon with what they perceive as his platform’s bias against conservatives.

In recent months, Zuckerberg has met with Republican politicians, including Graham, and conservative activists such as Ben Shapiro to discuss partisan bias in mainstream media as both the Trump administration and left-wing congressional Democrats threaten to dismantle Facebook through antitrust enforcement. Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren may want to “break up Big Tech” as president in 2021, but for now, Trump and his conservative allies have the power to do so. But both factions have expressed distrust of Silicon Valley, and so they both threaten to overwhelm the world’s largest social media platform.

Zuckerberg struggles to appease either of these partisan factions in deliberative settings, and he struggles to address these political crises with any moral clarity when left to his own forums, devices, and bylines. He answered Ocasio-Cortez’s questions about viral misinformation with optimistic tributes to political freedom. “In a democracy,” Zuckerberg said, “I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.” Zuckerberg doubled down on these themes in his recent speech at Georgetown University. “Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable,” Zuckerberg said. “I personally believe this is more dangerous for democracy over the long term than almost any speech.”

As an example, Zuckerberg cited the Chinese government’s intimidation of U.S. companies whose employees express public support for the ongoing pro-sovereignty protests in Hong Kong. “Until recently,” Zuckerberg said, “the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out.” Zuckerberg says that social media platforms funded by Chinese investment, such as TikTok, WeChat, and Reddit, are vulnerable to political censorship. On Friday, the federal government launched a “national security review” of TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, based in Beijing. Cynically, Zuckerberg hopes to cast his company’s haphazard content moderation efforts in contrast with rigorous censorship by the Chinese government. “Is that the internet we want?” Zuckerberg asked.

Among Zuckerberg’s critics, few are more verbose than screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin wrote and directed The Social Network, a 2010 film about Facebook’s origin story (though Zuckerberg, speaking at Georgetown, revised that story to say he launched Facebook, not as a Harvard campus dating aid, but to bolster campus protests against the Iraq War). “I admire your deep belief in free speech,” Sorkin wrote, addressing Zuckerberg, in a New York Times op-ed. “But this can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.” Sorkin impressed upon Zuckerberg with a classic Sorkin plea: “How can we do this to tens of millions of kids? Are we really going to run an ad that claims Kamala Harris ran dog fights out of the basement of a pizza place while Elizabeth Warren destroyed evidence that climate change is a hoax and the deep state sold meth to Rashida Tlaib and Colin Kaepernick?” Warren has also criticized Facebook for its failure to police misinformation on its platform; she recently trolled Zuckerberg by buying deliberately false campaign ads on Facebook, claiming, “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.”

In his own Facebook profile, Zuckerberg lists The West Wing, also written and directed by Sorkin, as his favorite TV show. On Thursday, Zuckerberg posted a popular excerpt from another Sorkin film, The American President, starring Michael Douglas. “You want free speech?” the president says in his climactic remarks before the White House press corps. “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” In his retort, Zuckerberg impressed conservatives, who resent the degree to which pundits blame conservative outlets, such as Fox News and Breitbart, for spreading the most egregiously “fake” news, including conspiracy theories and propaganda. So conservatives cast Sorkin as an aspiring censor in contrast with Zuckerberg, the free speech paladin.

The red-versus-blue polarization is familiar enough. But now “fake news” also pits Facebook, the world’s largest web media platform, against Twitter, the preferred social media platform for so many journalists, activists, and politicians, including Trump. Last Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he would discontinue political advertisements on his platform. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” Dorsey tweeted. “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.” Crucially, Dorsey regards Facebook’s greatest asset—massive scale—as its most disastrous and unsustainable quality. Coincidentally, Twitter’s ad revenue pales in comparison with Facebook’s, and political ads are a meager portion of Twitter’s overall business.

Zuckerberg didn’t invent misinformation. But he did invent a platform that disseminates it at unprecedented speed and scale. He’s helped wreck the news business, too. “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes,” Dorsey continued. “All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” Suddenly, Republicans mobilized to defend Zuckerberg against criticism from Dorsey, Sorkin, and other progressives. Texas Senator Ted Cruz worries that social media bans on political ads will empower incumbents and otherwise favor Democratic politicians and progressive journalists. “Facebook has expressed its desire to stand for free speech,” Cruz wrote in The Hill, “and while it still has a long ways to go, these are very positive developments. Twitter, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction.” Of course, Zuckerberg and Dorsey may well revise their principles with little notice and even less coherence. So, too, may their allies, depending on the news cycle. If Facebook does ban political ads, Trump—who spends more money on Facebook and Google ads than any other politician—will have identified a new adversary in the “fake news” business.

Zuckerberg and Dorsey are hardly the most rigorous free-speech champions in modern discourse. Their recent proclamations about fostering healthy debate on their platforms is transparently self-serving, designed to protect their companies from hyperpartisan incursions. Zuckerberg and Dorsey are play-fighting with each other. They are pantomiming political thought for a restless, divided audience. For the past year, Zuckerberg and Dorsey have toured the political landscape and they’ve struggled to appease progressives and conservatives in equal measure, if at all. Briefly, Zuckerberg may align with the conservatives, and Dorsey may align with the progressives, but neither social media executive defends free speech from censorship, on principle, so much as they’re defending their companies from political rebellion. “As long as our governments respect people’s right to express themselves, as long as our platforms live up to their responsibilities to support expression and prevent harm, and as long as we all commit to being open and making space for more perspectives,” Zuckerberg said at Georgetown, “I think we’ll make progress.” Facebook has grown from a hot-or-not app to being at the forefront of a digital dystopian war zone in 15 years. It’s a kind of progress for Zuckerberg, at least: Four years ago, he asked China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, if he would suggest names for Zuckerberg’s first child. Now Zuckerberg posits himself as the last man standing between the free world and communist Chinese-style censorship. Zuckerberg’s progress is, truly, incredible.