Facebook has a big trust problem.
The recent Zuckerberg hearings in Congress demonstrate that we don’t trust that Facebook is treating content objectively or protecting our data.
.@cathymcmorris grills Zuckerberg on Facebook’s treatment of conservative content:
"What is acceptable news and what safeguards exist to ensure that, say, religious or conservative content is treated fairly?" pic.twitter.com/P1WqaM1314
— IJR (@TheIJR) April 11, 2018
In fact, the most recent Harvard poll showed that just four percent of the millennials and post-millennials said they trust Facebook “all the time.”
As I said in my questioning with Mr. Zuckerberg, the issue of content discrimination is not a problem unique to Facebook — there are a number of high-profile examples of edge providers engaging in blocking and censoring religious and conservative political content.
We should be concerned about the amount of religious and conservative content these companies are deeming objectionable. Just prior to Easter this year, Facebook rejected an ad from a Catholic university featuring an image of the historic San Damiano Cross because it was deemed “shocking, sensational, or excessively violent.”
Similarly, Twitter blocked an ad that Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) campaign tried to promote because it deemed her speech about Planned Parenthood’s documented “sale of baby body parts” to be “inflammatory.”
Dennis Prager, a conservative commentator and intellectual, sued YouTube’s parent company, Google, for placing 40 of his PragerU videos on a restricted list, normally used for obscene or violent content. For example, a PragerU video by a scholar with a Ph.D. from Stanford about the Korean War was put on the restricted list. Liberal videos did not receive the same kind of treatment.
As Mr. Prager said about his lawsuit, companies like Google and Facebook control much of the free flow of information on the Internet right now. If we want to have a true market of ideas that strengthens society, we must be able to trust that these companies are not blocking ideological content on either side.
Of course, companies like Google and Facebook may not be the leading content providers in 10 years, so we need to be careful in saying that government regulation is the answer to our trust problem. Technology is constantly changing. Even the best-intended lawmakers cannot foresee what Internet platforms will be like down the road, and we shouldn’t hinder that innovation.
However, we need to hold these companies accountable and demand that they live up to the values that they claim to hold.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s response to me in the hearing was, “The principle that we are a platform for all ideas is something that I care very deeply about. I’m worried about bias, and we take a number of steps be sure that none of the changes that we make are targeted in any kind of biased way and I’d be happy to follow up with you and go into more detail on that. I agree that this is a serious issue.”
I hope that he does follow up with the American public with answers to these questions:
What will Facebook do to ensure that content is judged objectively, without bias based on religious or political ideology?
What will Facebook do to make sure that our data on their platforms are not abused?
Thus far, I’m worried that his company did not understand our questions and concerns during the hearing. Just this week, Facebook asked its users to decide, “Does this post contain hate speech?: Yes or No.” This doesn’t seem like an objective way to determine its content standards to me — even if the feature was made live by accident.
Beginning later this month, less than two months after the Zuckerberg hearings, Facebook is introducing a new ad authorization requirement that forces people who purchase political ads to input the last 4-digits of their Social Security number, a photo ID, and a mailing address. If we couldn’t trust Facebook with our data before, how can we trust them to store this information now?
Facebook missed the point — they are part of the trust crisis in our country.
Now, they recently announced that they are committing to an audit by both conservatives and civil rights groups. This is a positive step in the right direction.
I hope that they take this challenge seriously because free exchange of dialogue is essential to a free society. We have to have free speech protected both legally and culturally.
The protection of the First Amendment from government censorship is integral to this, but so is the influence of individuals and cultural leaders (be they large companies, celebrities, or the news media).
Free speech in our culture appears to be at an all-time low, and Facebook isn’t the only culprit. College students are denying or shouting down speakers they deem to be controversial, such as scholar Charles Murray. The Supreme Court heard a case this spring that will determine whether California can force a pro-life pregnancy care center to also advertise abortion services. We also know that free speech around the world is under threat and that we need to take action in our country now to protect it.
Of course, with free speech comes offensive speech or speech we don’t like. But to have a free society where we debate ideas and build dialogue and trust amongst each other, we must have free speech.