Nina Jankowicz is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. She tweets @wiczipedia.
Mark Zuckerberg was hauled up to Capitol Hill this week to answer for Facebook’s sins. Clad in an ill-fitting suit, seated on a four-inch cushion and armed with phrases designed to placate a skeptical congressional audience, Zuckerberg sought to paint Facebook — one of the world’s most powerful companies, with near-ubiquitous access to the intimate details of our lives — as the picture of the American dream and exemplification of American values. After all, as Zuckerberg repeatedly reminded Congress, he started the company in his dorm room.
In his testimony, Zuckerberg described Facebook as “an idealistic and optimistic company” that helps “people everywhere … stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses.” But that’s not entirely true; people everywhere have not had equal access to those intrinsically democratic values.
What failed to surface in the hearings is that Facebook has a history of double standards, kowtowing to the demands of authoritarian governments around the globe while paying lip service to the protection of free speech in order to preserve the company’s lucrative market share. While Zuckerberg was grandstanding about the right of users to have control over their data and his hope that Facebook would be a platform for “all ideas,” the consequences of his company’s conciliatory policies toward governments continued to affect individuals’ right to free expression in places like Turkey and Russia.
Since Turkey’s 2016 military coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has imprisoned thousands of critics, all but eliminated independent media and censored a great deal of content on the Internet. Access to Facebook and other social media has been repeatedly restricted in Turkey during times of political unrest, yet Facebook continues to contribute to the crackdown on online freedom of information. It refuses to go the way of Wikipedia, which was blocked in its entirety after refusing to edit or remove entries that the Turkish government deemed unlawful under the country’s Internet Act. The government used the same law as a pretext when requesting that Facebook restrict 1,823 pieces of content in the year following the coup. Facebook complied. Facebook hasn’t released a transparency report covering restrictions after June 2017; how much content has been removed since then?
The incongruity of Facebook’s purported policies and practices extends beyond Turkey. Zuckerberg repeatedly asserted that Facebook and the United States are in an “arms race” with Russia. But within the Russian Federation’s borders, you won’t catch the tech giant standing up for the very democratic ideals that Russia sought to undermine in the 2016 election and beyond.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, recently caved to the Russian government censor’s demands that it remove content related to opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigation. Navalny’s video used posts from a Russian escort’s Instagram account to implicate Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko and recently sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who filed a lawsuit saying that the Instagram content violated his right to privacy. Rather than ignore the request from the Russian censor and risk being blocked in Russia, Facebook removed the content in question, rendering it inaccessible to the 5 million-plus Internet users who watched Navalny’s investigation.
To its credit, Facebook has not yet (that we know of) relented to Moscow’s demands that it store data relating to Russian users on servers within the country. But that does not make pandering to an authoritarian government acceptable, and it’s a practice that has been repeated around the globe; Facebook has complied with arcane censorship laws and blocked anti-government content in Morocco, India and Israel. It reportedly sought to woo Beijing to unblock the site within China by developing a government censorship tool.
Despite these actions, Facebook said until recently that it was not an “arbiter of truth.” Zuckerberg has come around, saying in the Senate on Tuesday that his company is “responsible for content.” He seems to have not yet grasped that this responsibility extends to preserving, not squelching, democratic debate, particularly where it is most vulnerable.
Zuckerberg would like us to believe that he is a champion of connection and free expression, a vision of American Dream 2.0, from dorm room to boardroom. But he is more demagogue than democrat. If he weren’t, Facebook would have stood up for the voiceless in places like Turkey and Russia and been more apt to respond to the truly problematic content that has poisoned American online discourse for the past several years and continues apace today. This is the only area where there is harmony between Facebook’s policies at home and abroad. The bottom line is that Facebook only prioritizes connecting people and making their voices heard when it doesn’t affect the bottom line.