Let’s talk about Facebook.
Are you sick of hearing people talk about Facebook? Well, too bad. Mark Zuckerberg says if you don’t let us talk about Facebook, you’re dampening our voice. And, as we all know, sharing our voice “empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time,” according to Zuckerberg. At a recent PR wet dream at Georgetown University, the CEO of Facebook gave a speech entitled “Standing for Voice and Free Expression” as a part of the university’s new “Democracy in the Digital Age” series of lectures. Despite the event’s overambitious name, student speech during the event was heavily regulated, and student questions were pre-selected. Because they were submitted before the event, the questions could not have possibly pertained to the topics Zuckerberg covered. This was probably exciting for him, as his speech was an irredeemable hodgepodge of buzzwords and platitudes.
Zuckerberg mentioned “voice” over 30 times throughout his speech, seemingly as a substitute for freedom of speech — like when he said, “some people believe giving more people a voice is driving division rather than bringing us together,” or “political ads are an important part of voice.” But they’re not the same thing. Freedom of speech refers to the right of the people to speak without fear of government restriction. Voice, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.”
So, not the same.
Yet Zuckerberg uses “voice” in an effort to apply free speech to his private company. He knows they’re not the same thing, but he also knows that if he equates them enough times in a 35-minute window, people will forget that he is able to regulate the content on Facebook.
Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, the public has not forgotten. On Sept. 24, Facebook announced it would not be fact-checking political ads, a move Zuckerberg defended in his Georgetown speech. As a private institution, Facebook is not technically responsible for regulating the content on their site. However, many people believe they are morally responsible. After all, based on Facebook’s estimations, over a third of the world’s population uses the site.
But to allow false political advertisements to circulate on the site misleads the public, and that is not a “voice” issue at that point. By framing this as a free speech, or “voice” issue, Zuckerberg believes that he can avoid that moral responsibility by focusing on what he believes to be his moral responsibility to “give more people a voice to be heard.” Zuckerberg isn’t the first person to twist the concept of free speech to fit his agenda. Every third Twitter thread is just some white dude using the n-word and then defending it with a cry of “free speech!” But as problematic as the views of these Twitter trolls are, Zuckerberg’s is worse: As the CEO of a massive social media company, his loose equation of “free speech = voice” is what enables these people to twist the definition of “free speech” to fit their agenda.
Discourse will find its place, whether Zuckerberg regulates Facebook or not. Facebook is not, at heart, a political forum — sure, there have been political controversies surrounding it, and there are plenty of political posts on the site — but the purpose of Facebook is not to be a beacon of political truths. For Zuckerberg to paint Facebook as some kind of special forum for public thought is disingenuous, and he’s only doing it so he doesn’t have to take a closer look at his company and reevaluate his business model. We’re living in an era where public discourse is extremely important, but arbitrarily turning something into a free speech issue debases what free speech actually means.
Oh, and, just like how free speech doesn’t let you yell “fire” in a movie theater, sharing your “voice” on Facebook shouldn’t let you use the n-word in a knitting interest group.