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Masha Gessen, a Russian emigre and journalist, always has interesting commentaries on U.S. politics.
In this New Yorker article, she writes about Mark Zuckerberg and his flawed interpretation of the First Amendment.
In the course of the article, she reveals a startling fact. Zuckerberg is advising Mayor Pete.
What is the First Amendment for? I ask my students this every year. Every year, several people quickly respond that the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to speak without restriction. True, I say, but what is it for? It’s so that Congress doesn’t pass a law that would limit the right to free speech, someone often says. Another might add that, in fact, the government does place some limits on free speech—you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, or say certain words on broadcast television and radio. I ask the question a third time: What is the First Amendment for? There is a pause as students realize that I am asking them to shift their frame of reference. Then someone says that the First Amendment is for democracy, for the plurality of opinions in the national conversation.
My students are undergraduates, some of whom will become journalists. Before they leave the confines of their small liberal-arts college, they will develop a more complicated view of politics and the media than the one they started with. The adult world they are entering, however, generally sticks to an elemental level of discourse. Last week, for example, the head of the country’s largest media company, Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, gave a nearly forty-minute lecturein which he reiterated that the right to free speech was invented so that it wouldn’t be restricted. In Zuckerberg’s narrative, as my colleague Andrew Marantz has written, freedom of speech, guaranteed by technological progress, is the beginning and the end of the conversation; this narrative willfully leaves out the damage that technological progress—and unchallenged freedom of all speech—can inflict. But the problem isn’t just Zuckerberg; more precisely, Zuckerberg is symptomatic of our collective refusal to think about speech and the media in complicated ways.
“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world,” Zuckerberg said in his address. “It’s a fifth estate, alongside the other power structures in our society.” Zuckerberg was appropriating a countercultural term: beginning in the nineteen-sixties, “the fifth estate” referred to alternative media in the United States. Now the head of a new-media monopoly was using the term to differentiate Facebook from the news media, presumably to bolster his argument that Facebook should not be held to the same standards of civic responsibility to which we hold the fourth estate.
This strategy of claiming not to be the media has worked well for Facebook. On Monday, when Bloomberg broke the news that Zuckerberg has advised the Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on campaign hires, the story called Zuckerberg “one of tech’s most powerful executives.” CNN referred to him and his wife, Priscilla Chan, as “two of America’s most influential businesspeople and philanthropists.” Vox’s Recode vertical calledhim “the world’s third-richest person” and observed that he had become so toxic that “accepting a political donation from Mark Zuckerberg in 2020 is nowhere close to worth the money.” (The Times appears not to have covered the story for now.) Any one of these frames makes for an important and troubling story: a Presidential campaign in bed with a major tech corporation, influenced by and possibly intertwined with one of the country’s richest men—that is bad. It’s worse when one recalls Buttigieg’s attempts to go after Elizabeth Warren during last week’s Democratic debate. Warren has called for breaking up Facebook’s social-media monopoly, and Zuckerberg has referred to Warren as an “existential” threat to the company. Now imagine if it were the head of ABC or CNN or the New York Times Company who had served as an informal hiring consultant to a Presidential candidate. It would almost certainly be a bigger story and more broadly perceived as troublesome. Most of us still believe that the media are an essential component of democracy, and that a media outlet that is partisan or committed to a single candidate, but not in a transparent way, is a bad democratic actor.