Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How Facebook Should Defend Permitting Political Lies

Mark Zuckerberg is facing heat from Congress and the media this week over his insistence that he has no choice but to allow Donald Trump to freely lie on his platform.

Much as I despise Facebook (and Donald Trump), his position strikes me as completely obvious. But I've actually moderated online content, so my vantage point is not normal. Here's how I see it (and how Facebook, if it communicated effectively, should put it):
Say we make a rule that no politician may lie on Facebook. And say an assemblyman from Topeka posts that parking ticket revenue has risen, when it's actually fallen. Must we catch that? And block it?

"That's trivial," you'd protest, and I'd agree. So...where do we draw the line? Exactly how obscure must a politician be, and how trivial their issue, for them to enjoy free reign for lying on Facebook?

And far more important than the impossible issue of where to draw the line is who draws the line. If a Facebook moderator subscribes to very widely-held conservative opinions, should they block liberal politicians from making what they view as false statements? For example, Donald Trump's loyalty to Putin/Russia may seem empirically obvious to you and I, but it is not yet a proven fact. Shall we censor any liberal (or never-Trump conservative) politician who declares Trump enthralled to Putin? Whose set of facts constitute "truth"? Who owns the yardstick?

Then there are other impossible muddles, such as the very soft boundaries between lies and ignorance, and between lies and opinion. Plus the fact that even the very definition of the word "lie" is open to interpretation.

We have a criminal justice system designed to winnow truth from lies. It's a difficult, ambitious process, and no one claims it's efficient, much less flawless. And even that gigantic undertaking restricts its purview in myriad ways. If its scope were expanded to address bad faith or malfeasance of any sort, in any context, that would be all we ever did as a country. It would swallow the rest of society. Honestly, there wouldn't be much left.

Facebook is worth a half trillion dollars. Even if we invested every cent into the task, it wouldn't be nearly enough to catch, judge, and expunge the lies.

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