The extended inquisition of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill this week has revealed that many confused members of Congress had one overarching question: What exactly is this Internet thing, anyway? Viewers may have had another: Who the heck are Diamond and Silk?
These “two truly fantastic women!” (President Trump’s words) may have little to do with data privacy. But they have a lot to do with another conundrum for Facebook — one that we shouldn’t lose sight of as we start to talk regulation.
Diamond and Silk, according to sisters Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, are not only “Vloggers, Public Figures & Speakers” as well as “Internet, Radio & TV Personality,” but also “President Donald J Trump’s Most Outspoken & Loyal Supporters.” In other words, Diamond and Silk post videos proclaiming Trump’s virtues in bombastic style — sometimes in rap form. They went viral in 2016 as black women in support of the then-candidate, and they went viral again last week when they accused Zuckerberg and his company of censoring them.
To the 87 million Facebook users affected by the Cambridge Analytica breach (and the millions more who’ve had their data scraped by some other less-than-savory actor), the Diamond and Silk affair may seem beside the point. But one senator and a surprising number of representatives seemed to disagree.
“Facebook routinely suppressed conservative stories from the trending news … initially shut down the ‘Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day’ page … and most recently blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page, with 1.2 million Facebook followers,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said to Zuckerberg on Tuesday. To “a great many Americans,” Cruz said, that appears to be “a pervasive pattern of political bias.”
“I’d like to show you right now a little picture here,” said Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), as he displayed a very big picture of the duo at the House hearing Wednesday. “What is ‘unsafe’ about two black women supporting Donald J. Trump?”
“Let me tell you something right now,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said later. “Diamond and Silk is not terrorism.”
These attempts to paint Facebook as a liberal juggernaut did appear out of place in hearings about data privacy. But they’re worth paying attention to anyway. That’s because they strike at the center of the problem that captured everyone’s attention before the breach to end all breaches diverted it: how Facebook’s fight to cut down on false information as well as hate speech will run up against its commitment to protect freedom of expression.
Facebook hasn’t explained how Diamond and Silk’s videos violated their terms of service, and the company said that it approached the pair to sort out what went wrong. Blackburn is right, after all. Diamond and Silk aren’t terrorism, and the sisters don’t advocate violence. But if the comediennes got caught up in a content-constricting algorithm, they got caught up in it for a reason: They’ve pushed conspiracy theories from Uranium One to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) supposed secret “gay lifestyle,” and during the campaign they stumped for Trump in an interview with a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier who insists that “Jews Did 9/11.”
Perhaps this messy history doesn’t mean Diamond and Silk deserve for Facebook to restrict their posts’ reach or prevent them from alerting their followers to new videos. Or perhaps it does. It’s a test case for a quandary that Facebook has been muddling through since last summer, when the world and Web exploded with revelations that Russia had harnessed the platform’s reach to sow discord with destructive propaganda — and when, about the same time, Charlottesville also exploded with white-nationalist vitriol. Before we were asking the company to keep our data safe from advertisers, we were asking it to keep our democracy safe from foreign interference, and our online communities safe from abuse. At the same time, we were asking it to stay neutral — an almost impossible task.
Now, the focus has shifted to security, and discussion of any regulation to come has centered on users’ ability to control the information they allow Facebook to access in exchange for its free services. But that means inviting government to involve itself more actively in Internet affairs, and the involvement could stretch beyond rules that protect consumers from privacy violations: While Republicans are usually wary of interfering in an industry’s affairs, many appear willing to break the rule to thwart what they see as an anti-right cabal in Silicon Valley. So although privacy may stay the word for now, speech could soon follow.
Facebook has struggled with the contradictory onus of remaining a “platform for all ideas” while filtering out ideas it deems too dangerous. But there’s little reason to think government would do better. And there’s a lot of reason to wonder whether it even ought to try.