An unusual thing happened last week. Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech with which I mostly agreed. Regular readers will know that I have frequently criticised the chief executive of Facebook. My book The Square and the Tower contains some harsh words about his company — and particularly its conduct in the fateful election year of 2016.
However, speaking at Georgetown University in Washington last week, the Facebook co-founder took a stance on the issue of free speech that pleasantly surprised me. First, he got his history right. “Giving everyone a voice,” he argued, “empowers the powerless” whereas “the most repressive societies have always restricted speech the most”. Correct. “Pulling back on free expression . . . often ended up hurting the minority views we seek to protect.” Also correct.
Second, Zuckerberg recognised that the internet has fundamentally transformed the public sphere. We are no longer in the old world of newspapers, radio and television: “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”
I like the coinage of the Fifth Estate. In case you’ve lost track of those pre-French Revolution categories, the First Estate is — or was — the clergy, the second the nobility and the third the middle class. The fourth, the press, came later and should now be called the old media.
Pity me: I come from what little is left of the Third Estate and write for the fourth. The former is being hollowed out between the plutocratic “one per cent” and the populist masses; the latter is barely surviving the loss of advertising revenues to Facebook, not to mention Google. Small wonder that I have been a Zuckerberg critic. His Fifth Estate seems to have it in for both of mine.
The third and most important point of his talk was a trenchant defence of free speech. Facebook, he said, will “continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us”.
That will not mean applying a strict first amendment standard — remember, that binds only the government not to restrict speech — but something close to it. So far as possible, Facebook will not allow terrorist propaganda, child pornography, incitements to violence, misinformation “that could lead to imminent physical harm” and political messages by foreign bots masquerading as Americans. Otherwise, it will err on the side of free expression.
At a time when, not least in universities, there are ever-louder demands to prohibit “hate speech”, Zuckerberg’s opposition to the “ever-expanding definition of what speech is harmful” and his pledge to “fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible” are very welcome. No trigger warnings. No safe spaces.
It is also refreshing to hear this affirmation of free speech at a time when the Chinese government is so clearly demonstrating the link from authoritarianism to censorship. It has been easy to criticise the National Basketball Association for its craven repudiation of the manager of the Houston Rockets, who had expressed his support for the Hong Kong protesters. That is the price of doing business in China. Last week I received the Chinese translation of The Square and the Tower. The sections on Chinese social and political networks were conspicuous by their absence. You either play by the Communist Party’s rules or you exit the Chinese market.
As Zuckerberg said in an interview last week, there is now a clear contest on the internet between “American companies and platforms with strong free expression values” and their Chinese rivals, which will censor whatever the government in Beijing tells them to. Right again.
The test of your commitment to free speech is how far you are prepared to tolerate not only views you disagree with — hate speech — but also views that are downright mendacious: fake speech. Last month Facebook unveiled a new policy not to moderate politicians’ speech or fact-check their political adverts. The policy was swiftly put to the test when Donald Trump’s campaign released a 30-second video advert accusing former US vice-president Joe Biden of corrupt conduct in Ukraine. When Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to take down the ad, the company refused. Elizabeth Warren — Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination — countered by creating a fake ad of her own that claimed Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Trump.
Warren has called Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit machine”. If elected president, she has pledged to break the company up. But, like her European counterparts, she fails to see that in asking Facebook to decide which political ads air and which do not, she is implicitly ceding far more power to the company than it wants or should have. Do we want free speech on the internet, with all its nastiness? Or do we want censorship, which historically tends to be associated with a much more profound nastiness? To me, that’s an easy one.
Yet there is a price tag associated with a free-speech Facebook and we should not ignore it. The presidential election of 2020 will be only the third in which the internet has been the decisive battleground. And the internet will matter even more in 2020 than it did in 2016, when it mattered more than it did in 2012.
In my previous column I noted — on the basis not only of opinion polls but also of prediction markets — that Warren had a serious chance of becoming president. But I now want to argue that, if you factor in social media, she will probably lose to Trump. And the same goes for anyone else the Democrats might choose to nominate. The reason is that Brad Parscale’s digital campaign for Trump is already miles ahead.
According to data for the year up to September 19, published by The New York Times last week, the Trump campaign has spent $15.9m (£12m) on Facebook and Google ads, more than the total spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined. While the Democrats do old-school things such as debating on cable television, Parscale and his team are aggregating the mobile advertising IDs of the entire voting population, matching location data from phone usage to other information they have.
In my book I argued that Facebook — not Russia — was the crucial factor in the 2016 election. From June to November 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent $28m and tested 66,000 different ads. Working closely with Facebook, Trump’s people spent nearly twice as much ($44m) and tested nearly a hundred times more ads (5.9m).
Facebook — and Google — will matter even more next year. One side fully understands that and it is not the Democrats. Zuckerberg is right: it is not his job to come between Parscale and Facebook users. But we should all clearly understand what this means: it very probably means a second Trump term.
The Fifth Estate has indeed empowered the powerless. But not only them.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford