Facebook vs. Aileen–and Trump-era freedom of speech

Do you remember the start of The Social Network?

In the 2010 movie, future Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg gets an earful from the Boston University coed who’s been dating him.

“You are probably going to be a very successful computer person,” Erica says in response to his social and intellectual snobbery. “But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Zuckerberg and Aileen O’Donnell Joachim L’Etoile have never met, but she has her own, nonromantic reasons for loathing Zuck’s blithe haughtiness toward other people and their needs—the same famous arrogance depicted in the movie. She told me of the abuse she has suffered from the global media behemoth Zuckerberg controls.

The shameless Zuckerberg, citing phony freedom of speech reasons, thinks it’s fine for the Trump campaign and others to be able to lie in paid political ads on Facebook. But obscure people like Aileen—the equivalents of Erica? They must be held to “Community Standards.”  Zuckerberg’s arrogance is in the spirit of Leona Helmsley, the hotel boss jailed for tax evasion, who said that “Only the Little People pay taxes.” It’s also reminiscent of the line in the movie where Zuckerberg says Erica doesn’t have to study because “you go to B.U.”

Here’s what happened to Aileen, who, although a Bernie Sanders delegate from Massachusetts in 2016, is hardly on equal footing with a bully like Zuckerberg and his enforcers.

Zuckerberg’s company suspended certain of her Facebook capabilities this week for violating its so-called standards without, she says, giving her a clear reason why. She could not share, post or comment on Facebook. The suspension started Monday night, with notification coming Tuesday morning, and it lasted until Thursday. It was the second suspension Aileen had suffered in the past few weeks. Suspensions of other Sanders boosters stretched out as long as a month. Was all this trouble for the Bernie people a coincidence? Even if not, this wasn’t Zuckerberg’s company at its best.

Just how had Aileen been so offensive? Did she threaten someone’s life or other harm? Hardly. Incite violence? No—unlike Trump who, in his political speeches, uses violent rhetoric and provokes incidents against journalists and political enemies.

How about punishment for posting links to too many news clips, especially without reading them? Aileen admits that’s a possibility. I could understand Facebook’s hostility toward that. But if so, why didn’t Facebook explain the reason before yanking her access? And why did Facebook not suspend Aileen for such conduct before the past few weeks.

What she can recall doing this week was to repost a go-fund-me appeal in the memory of a Sanders supporter who died suddenly. Oh, and she also has posted dangerous content like a video where Sanders invokes Martin Luther King’s words in calling for fairer distribution of wealth among Americans. Perhaps Zuckerberg’s peons, watching out for their boss, now worth around $75 billion, took offense.

Justified or not, Sanders-related or not, the mysterious suspensions illustrate the difficulties that Trump foes can experience. Zuckerberg is an unapologetic funnel for a well-funded sociopathic liar whose greedster-friendly campaign enjoys massive access without Kafkaesque complications.

With Zuckerberg’s reputation in the pits, I’m not surprised that Facebook has announced the creation of what some have dubbed a “Supreme Court for content.” Supposedly it can even overrule Zuckerberg. But so what? Could the Supreme Court have immediately stepped in against cryptic, arbitrary enforcement of “community standards” in cases like Aileen’s? And as the Columbia Journalism Review notes, the panel won’t be “able to adjudicate whether content that wasn’t taken down should have been—such as the video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her appear drunk. Facebook said that this restriction could change over time, but didn’t say when or why.”

Some say the content Supreme Court is a positive and shows that Zuckerberg will be more open to regulation of one kind of another. Others say it’s a PR sham. I’d emphatically side with the latter.

Just why is Aileen shown the same contempt that the Zuckerberg oozed toward the possibly fictitious Boston University coed in the movie—while Facebook pockets million after million from the ever-lying Trump campaign? “Over the course of 2019, the Trump campaign spent nearly $20m on more than 218,000 different Facebook ads, a new Guardian analysis shows,” according to the newspaper. “Among the ads were some of the images and videos that made front-page news for their xenophobic, fear-mongering, vitriolic and outright false rhetoric.”

In character for Mark Zuckerberg! A headline in The Atlantic says it all: “Hillary Clinton: Mark Zuckerberg Has ‘Authoritarian’ Views on Misinformation. Facebook has traded moral accountability for commercial gain, the former secretary of state tells The Atlantic. Clinton says Zuckerberg’s reasoning is ‘Trumpian.’” Here, I’m convinced, Clinton is absolutely right.

“Listening to Clinton,” writes The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, “I was struck by how remarkably similar her account was to something Zuckerberg had once told me. Facts, Zuckerberg had suggested, are best derived from foraging many opinions, ideally from the billions of humans who use his publishing platform, so that each individual might cherry-pick what to believe. (Cherry-pick is my word, not his.) If journalism’s mantra is ‘Seek truth and report it,’ Facebook’s might be ‘Seek opinions and react to them.’ ‘It’s not about saying, Here’s one view; here’s the other side,’ Zuckerberg had said when I’d asked him to reconcile the apparent contradiction between fact and opinion. ‘You should decide where you want to be.’”

Clearly Zuckerberg has decided where or what he wants to be: an enabler for Donald Trump, perhaps the third most powerful after “Moscow” Mitch McConnell and the Murdoch family. I don’t care who Zuckerberg votes for. Enabling Trump, while harassing ordinary users, is where the money is. Consider, too, the reduced chances of an anti-trust suit from Trump’s weaponized Justice Department.

I find Zuckerberg’s snobbery toward Erica in the movie to be abominable. But in loathsomeness, it is small potatoes compared to suppressing Aileen—and Trump’s other political enemies. I have no doubt that Facebook can also treat Trump allies callously. But the net effect is to favor Trump, because he’s allowed to lie with impunity in his online campaign dwarfing his foes’. He ran more than 218,000 Facebook ads last year compared to just 74,000 for the closest Democratic contender, Pete Buttigieg. Trump’s dishonesty was an advantage in the permissive Facebook environment for plutocrats and others with money. A Facebook executive has made clear that he won’t feel guilty if the giant social media platform again helps elects Trump as president. Wrong! Facebook is not a neutral platform for paid advertisers. It is liar-friendly, a godsend for the unscrupulous.

Alas, the censorship in Aileen’s case is ongoing. Just as I was winding down this commentary Thursday, she updated me with the news that “I am restricted from posting in Groups until Sunday at 5:15 a.m. No idea why!!”

Image credit: 2010 Zuckerberg photo, CC licensed, from TechCrunch.

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David Rothman

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