In the wake of the US election, Facebook has been getting a lot of flack for serving up misinformation and bogus news stories. This problem should not surprise us: Facebook is a social media outlet designed to make money on user traffic and attention. Stimulating democracy has never been part of the business model. But given new reports of Facebook’s moves in China to censor freedom of speech, undermining democracy may very well be acceptable under Mark Zuckerberg’s vision.
Facebook has never really been a free marketplace for opinions. Its “Community Standards” policy restricts what users can and can’t say, and Facebook staffers routinely make editorial decisions about when content involving violence, nudity, hate speech, and other restricted topics should be removed. Since it is a private organization, these decisions are made at the discretion of the company. One may disagree with how Facebook deals with fake news stories and censorship. But it would be equally dangerous to have a government body making those decisions for the social media company, opening up the possibility of state-governed mind (and media) control.
And yet, now it appears that Facebook is opening itself up to just such a possibility. Back in 2009, Facebook was banned in China because of the country’s rigid censorship policies. The company has reportedly been trying to find its way back into the Chinese market ever since. On Nov. 22, the New York Times reported that Facebook is working on a censorship tool which could be made amenable to China’s censorship policies, preventing certain news articles and topics from showing up in its newsfeed. The software tool is still being developed, and may never be put into use. But apparently, the Chinese market is just too big for Facebook to give up on it.
In a liberal democracy, Facebook can stimulate civic discourse—even if it sometimes makes a mess of administrating its editorial policies. Together with companies like Google, Instagram, YouTube, and a few others, it has the power to further democracy and the freedom of speech. But the company’s efforts to reenter the Chinese market suggest that, if freedom of speech is an impediment to profit, Facebook is willing to sell out democracy for the sake of the bottom line. In the Mark Zuckerberg mentality, it’s business first and galvanizing democracy a distant second—if at all.