Mark Zuckerberg gave an address about free speech at Georgetown University on Thursday. The self-analysis was skin deep; his historical parallels were, in fact, perpendicular; he mischaracterized his opponents with arguments made of straw. And he offered a favorite refrain of the widely reviled—hey, if both sides hate us we must be doing something right!

A recent essay in BookForum took note of this kind of less-than-rigorous centrist sophistry, which frequently finds its way to mainstream op-ed pages. “Incoherence is now a virtue,” writes Tobi Haslett, rhetorically shaking his head. “Rather than irony, modesty, discernment, ambivalence, or the mental sprightliness needed to parse conflicting views, a proud refusal to make solid arguments may be the cure for our divided times.”

In its rough outlines, Zuckerberg was trying to tell a coherent story—namely, that the internet has given voice to the voiceless and that some misguided souls, in their haste to root out hate speech and misinformation, were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He questioned their motives, too. While his side was acting on principle, his opponents appeared to be masking political ambition. “More people, across the spectrum,” he said of his foes, “believe that achieving the political outcomes they think matter is more important than every person having a voice.” Later, he picked up this point, “Democracy depends on the idea that we hold each others’ right to express ourselves and be heard above our own desire to always get the outcomes we want.”

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The problem for Zuckerberg, however, were the inconvenient facts about how Facebook operates. Recently, Zuckerberg met with President Trump in the White House, and shortly thereafter Facebook changed its internal rules to allow the Trump campaign (and other politicians’ campaigns) to spread misinformation. (It’s true that correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation, but the timing of the rule change looked fishy.) Zuckerberg even had the nerve to refer to this species of misinformation as “primary source speech.” (I distinctly remember being told in high school to consult primary sources to be most accurate.)

How, exactly, does allowing the current president to spend millions on false advertising help every person have a voice? Zuckerberg answered that question with another question: Hey, what is misinformation, anyway?

Misinformation might be satire, he said. It might be a long-ago story misremembered. It might even be the civil rights movement!

Zuckerberg twice referenced the civil-rights-era libel case New York Times v. Sullivan, which granted broad protections for publishers to print inaccuracies. The idea is that a free press needs some breathing room to make errors in the rough and tumble of the information maelstrom. Only inaccuracies about public figures like Sullivan published with “actual malice” can be considered libelous, the Supreme Court ruled. But in Zuckerberg’s warped telling, that case “was actually about an ad with misinformation, supporting Martin Luther King Jr. and criticizing an Alabama police department.” Does he really believe this? That the civil rights movement was engaged in a Trump-style misinformation campaign to rile up its supporters?

A little history refresher: New York Times v. Sullivan involved relatively minor errors in an ad that informed Northerners about the heinous conditions for African Americans in Alabama. The ad, which ran in March 1960, misstated the number of times King was arrested and flubbed the description of how the police were deployed to contain civil rights protestors. The police chief in Montgomery, L. B. Sullivan, who wasn’t named in the ad, sued for damages. An all-white jury in Alabama awarded him damages of $500,000. (The equivalent of about $4.3 million today.) The Supreme Court reversed the decision unanimously and laid down rules to stop a racist state government from using the courts to punish its enemies.

This false invocation of the civil rights movement highlights the incoherence—not to mention dishonesty—in Zuckerberg’s argument. He is so intent on depicting himself as the defender of voices of the dispossessed that he frames his bending to the rich and powerful as similar to defending civil rights protestors facing water cannons in Alabama.



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