Episode 40: High Enragement

In the fortieth episode of The Latest, we de-friend Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Warren, a professional Abraham Lincoln impersonator (www.abelincolnnyc.com), joins the program for this week’s O.J. Simpson Twitter Update.

The Latest with Greg Ott
The Latest with Greg Ott
Episode 40: High Enragement


Those voices are discussing Mark Zuckerberg, the Stick Stickly-lookalike whose backbone was also crafted out of a popsicle.

The Facebook founder’s laissez-faire approach to political speech has triggered yet another round of serious backlash against the social media company, joining rampant disinformation, a lack of data privacy, and the pervasively negative psychological effects of using the platform as another symptom you choose to ignore because you want to follow a high school acquaintance’s divorce unfold in real-time. 

On May 29, in response to the growing Minneapolis protests against police brutality, Mr. Trump attempted to heal the anguish by suggesting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” finally answering the question of what David Duke would have sounded like if he followed in the footsteps of Dr. Seuss.

Social media companies swiftly took action on the post: Twitter flagged the message for “glorifying violence” and restricted its sharing, Snapchat announced it would stop promoting president’s account under its Discover tab to curb voices that incite racial violence. 

Even LinkedIn said they would restrict the President’s speech if necessary — in case the leader of the free world needs to starts searching for a job in November, he may need to tap tap into LinkedIn’s professional network of deadbeat salesmen, former actors over-enthusiastically pursuing their backup in content marketing, and self-described thought-leaders sharing quotes about the power of software to account for the loss of power in their own lives.

But just like the guy at the beach who won’t stop blasting Margaritaville at full volume on his Android speakerphone because it’s his country, too, Facebook leadership sees the broad reach of incendiary speech as a feature, not a bug. 

At a Facebook employee town hall, Zuckerberg himself claimed that the “looting and shooting” reference “has no history of being read as a dog whistle,” which, despite the phrase’s well-documented racist history, is correct in the literal sense in that dogs can’t read. 

Facebook’s inaction has led at least three “ashamed” employees to resign in protest, and an estimated 400 employees have staged a virtual walkout, shutting the lids of their laptops en masse like a bunch of grad students getting shooed out of a Starbucks at closing time.

An open letter from 33 of Facebook’s early employees also trashed Zuckerberg’s stance, as well as another one from 140 scientists funded by Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organization, and third from a group of active Facebook moderators.

If only there was some sort of social network where open letters like these could thrive and spark civil debate, but alas, perhaps they’d need more thinly-veiled racist threats in order to achieve the kind of engagement they’d desire. 

Zuckerberg has long maintained that his platform, a public photo album with neo-Nazi literature tuckpointed between pictures of the new baby, is not the “arbiter of truth:” It’s up for you to decide whether or not you “like” or “love” the insinuation that heavily militarized police beat down a 75-year-old Antifa member who was paid by George Soros to jam police radio waves so that Bill Gates’ 5G networks can get back to broadcasting the coronavirus. 

But the reason Facebook isn’t interested in orbiting the truth is because it’s interested in keeping you engaged. Its algorithms serve up content that is more emotionally resonant that will lead to high levels of engagement and relevance. In English, polarizing content is good for business

I’m not necessarily saying that incendiary comments like Mr. Trump’s should get taken down and that people shouldn’t be allowed to judge for themselves, 

but it’s pretty disingenuous for Zuckerberg to pretend that he could never tinker with the sacred notion of free speech when Facebook’s algorithms are built around the very notion of tinkering with what people speak. 

And it’s even more galling when you remember that last October, Zuckerberg told Congress that if a politician, quote, “posts something that is calling for violence or could risk imminent physical harm…. we will take that content down,” end quote. 

Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach, and the world’s most powerful microphone being used in bad faith to gin up violence in the streets deserves to have its batteries taken out, not get handed an extension cord and list of people who are more susceptible to believing lies and deceit. And yes, I’m talking about your aunt — and mine, too.

The 36-year-old 85-billionaire claims he’s carefully reviewing Facebook’s stance on this, just like I carefully review a credit card offer in my mailbox before dropping it in the trash.

But until something changes, Facebook won’t just remain the premier destination for baby boomers, oblivious suburbanites, and unpopular millennials: it’ll be the place where people can yell “fire” in a crowded room, and encourage others to check in.