Institutions, Political Economy

America’s Overdue to Unfriend Mark Zuckerberg

May 16, 2021

The tech boss is finally being recognized as the American villain he is, rather than the folk hero he’s tried to present himself as.

Many have understandably applauded Facebook’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump from the site for the next two years, but the ability of a company to decide who should be in the public square, which the social network has effectively become, raises troubling questions about the future of our tattered democracy.

The decision was announced by Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom who’s now the vice president of global affairs at the social network, but there’s no question that the final call here belonged to Facebook’s co-founder, chairman, CEO, and controlling stockholder.

Not long ago, Mark Zuckerberg was a kind of folk hero to many Americans, a nerd who made billions with an idea developed at a Harvard dorm. He was a firm believer in free speech as recently as 2019, even to the point of offending the progressive cognoscenti. All that has changed, along with the political currents.

His free speech views faded when they became a threat, rather than a boon, to his bottom line. Now, rather than being seen the way he wants to be, as an open-minded entrepreneur and even a potential presidential candidate, Zuckerberg finally stands exposed as a leading member of the new techno-aristocracy manipulating the world and shaping our society to fit their own world view, while getting ever richer in the process.

This ascendency offers little for most Americans, even as Americans have provided so much to Zuckerberg and his ilk as tech has become ever more concentrated and monopolistic, putting a lie to the heroic myth of “a guy and a garage.” Since 2019, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have added more than two and a half trillion dollarsto their valuation, including record-breaking profits in 2020 as the pandemic shut down much of the in-person economy, while workers and consumers have faced stagnant incomes and purchasing power.

This is, as the left of center American Prospect put it, “predatory capitalism.”

This accrual of power relies on having influence in Washington. Quasi-monopolies like Facebook could never have grown into such behemoths if not for the willingness of regulators, in both parties, to let them buy potential competitors like Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp. Taking a proactive approach, Zuckerberg put several fingers on the scales to assure the defeat of the less controllable Trump by financing Election Day operations in many critical states through an obscure Chicago based front group, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which used its Facebook windfall to fund election offices, and staffers, around the country.

Facebook itself, along with Twitter, also de-platformed the New York Post, America’s oldest newspaper, to keep information about Hunter Biden’s laptop from circulating. And both sites booted Trump himself, a stance that horrified those like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny who have lived under autocratic regimes.

Of course, many progressives celebrated those moves that helped end Trump’s toxic presidency, but raw power politics were clearly at play here as well. President Biden’s administration is likely to prove far more congenial to the big tech agenda than the erratic, and increasingly hostile, Trump. Indeed, as the American Prospect noted, the upper echelon of the Biden administration is largely dominated by corporate types, including those who have worked for Facebook and other tech giants. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has particularly close ties with the social media giant and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, was predictably disinterested when she served as California’s attorney general in enforcing regulations against the tech giant.

The one-sidedness with which Zuckerberg and his cohorts approach politics reflects, to some extent, their geographic terroir. The Bay Area, and its doppelgänger, the Puget Sound, are among the most completely blue areas in the country. Five hundred Amazon employees, for example, now want their company, following the current anti-Zionist fashion, to sever all ties to Israel. Once Silicon Valley had a two-party system, with a strong moderate Republican presence. Today there are zero GOP members of Congress from the Bay Area, while the counties that are home to most tech companies—San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara—all voted by over 80 percent for Biden.

The progressive groupthink of the Valley expresses itself within these companies. Executives like Zuckerberg face intense pressure to conform to au courant progressive memes. Many CEOs, notes Jim Wunderman, head of the Bay Area Council, the leading regional business group, are “scared of their own employees.” In the pattern all too common on the college campuses from which the tech elite emerge, there is enormous pressure to castigate and even remove anyone with an opinion that differs from the accepted norms of the Bay Area progressives.

With Trump safely exiled to Florida, Zuckerberg can play off progressive support—as well as that of the “useful idiots” of the libertarian right—to continue the dominant platforms’ transformations from simple conduits of information into supreme curators and judges of the “truth.” Perhaps harkening to their engineering roots, tech elites tend to see “truth” as something that can be set and known, in effect reducing it to what fits in their flexible and fluid terms of service. The tech oligarchs may not know much about history or the Constitution, but they worship at the altar of “expertise,” particularly with the imprimatur of the state, to determine “acceptable” answers.

The results of defining and determining “truth” are as frightening as the worst of lies. Facebook’s attempt to control media globally even led The New York Times to speculate about it having “too much power.” The fact that de-platforming and labeling as misinformation comes from decisions made by a largely secret cabal of selected insiders and algorithms seems at best opaque and arbitrary.

The inevitable result has been to ban legitimate voices who dissent from the official “truth,” not just the right-wing lunatic fringe. Recently Facebook sought to label Unsettled, a book by Steve Koonin, President Obama’s energy department science adviser, as containing “multiple incorrect and misleading claims” simply because of objections from groups pushing climate alarmism.

Like Stalinist censors, Facebook and its counterparts in the cyberspace aristocracy think it is in their purview to decide what is true and, if you will, “fit to print.” Over the past year, Facebook was quick to censor accounts that broached the possibility of COVID-19 originating in a Chinese lab, perhaps because this meme was embraced by Trump and his cronies. But now that “official” science accepts the lab charges’ potential validity, and with Trump out of office, they have decided to change their minds.

The logic of backing “official” or accepted opinion may appeal to some progressives, particularly those with a sufficiently Bolshevik view of dissent, but it violates traditional liberal notions of free speech, debate, and ideological diversity. The idea that the economic elite should reflect the government line potentially poses a more lethal long-term threat to civil discourse than Trump’s attacks on the media as “enemies of the people.” Both mind-sets would have appealed to Stalin or the digital police currently working for Xi Jinping.

The good news is there is growing opposition to Zuckerberg’s power and that of his fellow oligarchs, even within Silicon Valley, and in both parties here, with the most rabid opposition coming from conservatives who have seen how easily, and glibly, the tech giants can silence them.

Even progressives who might agree with Zuckerberg’s political stances—and his banning of Trump—should think carefully about the threat of private sector monopolies controlled by tech moguls who seek to become the new media gods. Socialists, too, could end up in their crosshairs.

Originally published by The Daily Beast.

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