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Facebook puts the final nail in Mark Zuckerberg’s free speech master plan

June 5, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC

Two years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood at a podium at Georgetown University and staunchly defended free speech.

“Whether you like Facebook or not, we need to recognize what is at stake and come together to stand for free expression at this critical moment,” he said. 

But after being deluged with misinformation about COVID-19, hate, and false claims of election fraud—some of which came directly from then-President Donald Trump—Facebook has all but said: “Nevermind, forget what our CEO said.”

Under fire, the company has almost entirely reversed course on its free speech haven by clamping down on hate, increasing penalties for users who repeatedly share misinformation, and linking readers of any post related to COVID-19 to information from government sources.

On Friday, Facebook took another big step by saying that politicians—previously immune to many rules in terms of what they post—would now be treated like everyone else. And, by the way, Trump would be suspended for at least another two years, pending review, making his ambiguously indefinite ban more finite.

Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Law School professor of law emerita, said Facebook’s about-face boils down to one thing: Money. 

“No doubt the tune has changed at least in part due to the external pressures,” she said, pointing to advertisers, lawmakers, Facebook employees, and the public. “These are people in business, and their bottom line is their [financial] bottom line.” 

But Strossen also worries about the power social media has to censor any and all views. She calls Facebook “the most powerful censor the world has ever known,” which, if applied, could threaten democracy. For example, Facebook earlier policy of letting Trump say whatever he wanted played a role in for whom voters decided to cast their ballots. But if social media censors Trump or politicians like him, it could prevent the public from knowing the reality of their public servants.  

Whatever the case, Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, says while Facebook’s recent moves may contradict Zuckerberg’s initial free speech strategy, ultimately, it’s for the better.

“Different times require different measures,” Chander said. “There are things that are different today than when he spoke at Georgetown.”

Facebook did leave itself some wiggle room when it comes to policing what lawmakers post, however. In its announcement Friday, the company said it would still apply its “newsworthiness balancing test” to posts, measuring whether the public interest value of what’s posted outweighs the risk of harm of leaving it up.

Sure, Facebook said it will apply this test “in the same way to all content,” but the newsworthiness of a politician’s post versus the newsworthiness of an average user is vastly different (the company said it will disclose when it does leave a post up for its “newsworthiness”). It also said exceptional cases like Trump’s will now fall under new protocols, making it possible for political figures to be temporarily or permanently suspended during times of civil unrest.

Furthermore, Chander points out that the new policy will become especially tricky when it comes to leaders outside the U.S., many of whom have already violated Facebook’s policies. And Facebook may run into a sticky situation come 2023, when it’s expected to review and possibly extend Trump’s two-year ban. If Trump runs for president again, could extending his ban be considered election interference?

As Chander put it, Facebook seems to be reacting to the “shifting political winds.” And for Zuckerberg, that means eating his words.

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