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Apr 17, 2018

Who Is More Dangerous, Mark Zuckerberg or Ted Cruz?

When it comes to state and corporate power, the difference is one in kind, not of degree.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was testifying before Congress, Senator Ted Cruz asked him about Facebook’s censorship of conservative groups, suggesting a bias or double-standard. Zuckerberg’s response was somewhat hedged but essentially affirmed a commitment to being “a platform for all ideas.” I have no first-hand evidence either that there is or that there isn’t such a bias, but something about the question strikes me as odd.

If there were a demonstrable bias against conservative groups, hindering their ability to engage others in a discussion of their ideas, that would indeed be a double-standard, and it wouldn’t comport with Zuckerberg’s ideal of a global community of connected people who can share ideas and so on. It wouldn’t comport with my own ideals of freedom of expression and the benefits of open exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth. But why would that be a matter for the Senate? I can see why Senator Cruz wouldn’t be happy about it—whether for reasons like my own, or merely because it disadvantages ideas he favors—but so what?  Facebook is a private corporation, so it’s not literally censoring anything. Censorship is what governments do to squelch ideas they find threatening. They use physical force to prevent or punish publication of ideas they disapprove of.  That’s a bad thing because it means robust discussion of ideas in the public sphere cannot happen. This is largely why we have constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression and publication. But Facebook can’t do any of that.

Interestingly, there’s a critique of corporate power from the left that might work for Senator Cruz: the idea that corporate power is just as pernicious as state power. On this view, corporations “force” people to do things just like the state does, and therefore the state should regulate them. The illogic of that inference seems to me to be self-evident, though clearly many people think exactly this. But it would be a surprise to find out that conservative senators subscribe to this account of corporate power.

In reality, Facebook doesn’t have the power to fine or jail people it doesn’t like. Ted Cruz does (not alone, of course; provided that many of his 99 colleagues help him). Why should I be more worried about Zuckerberg than I already am about the state? Senator Lindsey Graham offered a reason: because Facebook is a monopoly.  As we all know, monopolies are so powerful, the state is needed to regulate them in order to reign in their power—except that nothing can even get to be a monopoly without the assistance of the state. So if Senator Graham is right, the state should stop interfering with other companies’ attempts to compete with Facebook. Facebook gets tremendous “corporate power” by virtually monopolizing the social media sphere. To balance that, it needs competition. But hang on, Facebook got where it is by challenging, and overcoming, its predecessor, MySpace. Pundits 15 years ago worried that MySpace was a potentially dangerous monopoly. A few years later, MySpace was a punchline. Facebook is in exactly the same situation: lots of people use it, lots of people don’t use it, and you never know when something better will come along. (See also: Blockbuster; FM radio.)

Some psychologists have speculated that social media makes people feel inadequate, because what we see in our newsfeeds looks like other people having better lives. And many people have noted that “fear of missing out” makes social media into a kind of time-sink. There may be something to these critiques. But Facebook cannot make you buy a product or vote for a candidate. Facebook cannot stop you from blogging, tweeting, or publishing [gasp] in print. It can have whatever rules it likes. At the moment, it lets me post links to articles criticizing its pernicious influence on our self-esteem. It lets me link to Libertarianism.org. I have no first-hand experience of the “censorship” Senator Cruz alluded to, but maybe it is real. If it is, it’s no different from The Atlantic “censoring” its columnists. I find that, on balance, Facebook is a net positive in my life. If that ever changes, what would happen? I’d stop using it.  Unfortunately, I do not have that option regarding the government.