Smart censorship: Facebook's questionable handling of criticism of Zuckerberg

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Smart censorship: Facebook's questionable handling of criticism of Zuckerberg
Smart censorship: Facebook's questionable handling of criticism of Zuckerberg

Smart Censorship

Facebook sings the praises of transparency and freedom of expression at every opportunity. How serious the network is about this becomes apparent when it becomes news content itself.


For many people, Facebook is the gateway to the outside world. According to a survey by Pew Research, more than every second adult US citizen (52 percent) now gets news on Facebook. Against the background of the most recent data scandals and flood of fake news, this trust may come as a surprise. But in the US, where 20 percent of newspapers have closed since 2004 and many citizens no longer have a local newspaper, Facebook is finding itself in a vacuum. The company has set up a $300 million fund to promote journalism, with which it finances local journalistic projects. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg set the goal years ago to "create the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world". The fact that Facebook acts as the savior of journalism is not without a certain irony, after all, by skimming off the advertising market, the group itself fueled the death of newspapers.

The only question is to what extent Facebook can be a functional equivalent for local newspapers - and whether the group will succeed in generating a critical public. Facebook is not just a platform that creates publicity (even if only a simulated publicity), but as a company itself is the subject of public criticism. Facebook is committed to openness and transparency at every opportunity. But the claims of a "global, informed community," which Zuckerberg proclaimed with much pathos, the company does not seem to apply to itself.

When Zuckerberg recently delivered a speech about the dangers of censorship at Georgetown University, which was live-streamed on Facebook, users saw a flood of mostly positive comments and emojis. The users also reacted to the speech with negative comments and emojis, only they were not displayed. Instead, there was a torrent of praising remarks that didn't seem to stop. "You are an idol for the young generation," wrote one. Another thanked for "the amazing social media platform" as if Facebook was a gift from God.

You only know that you end up on the index because you joke about your boss from authoritarian regimes

No one knows if the users were bots or followers of a Facebook cult, but the comments were dripping with deference. Criticism? none. Instead: smileys and thumbs up. While Zuckerberg taunted about free speech and invoked Martin Luther King, freedom of expression was restricted in his own system. Only after the speech was over did one read more critical contributions again. A spokesman cited the sheer volume as the reason why negative comments were hardly displayed. Facebook, according to the technical explanation, relies on a variety of "ranking signals" - metrics influenced by engagement density and comment frequency - to filter specific comments. That means: The "engagement" was too high to publish all the comments.

But there may be another reason for this strange selectivity: The Washington Post suspected that the algorithm could simply have suppressed negative comments so as not to disavow Zuckerberg in front of his own audience. That would mean that the algorithm operated not according to quantitative but according to qualitative criteria, i.e. semantically. The events are reminiscent of authoritarian systems in which critical banners are not shown in the state media during a public appearance by the dictator, and critics of the regime are not taken away by the police. But on Facebook you don't have to drag anyone out of the room - it's enough to set the algorithmic parameters in such a way that criticism is not even displayed. Disruptors are simply switched off. Smart censorship.

The fact that Facebook uses double standards when it comes to freedom of expression is not a new phenomenon. Last year, Bloomberg news agency reported that since 2016, Facebook employees have been using secret software called Stormchaser to track down viral posts that cast the company in a bad light -- for example, the rumor that Facebook leaks private information if you don't post a chain letter Splits. Or the rumor that the group listens to its users via a microphone in their smartphones. Jokes about Mark Zuckerberg that caricatured him as an alien were also scrutinized by staff. The inspectors had also examined more closely the activities of the DeleteFacebook movement, which formed after the data scandal and meant bad publicity for the group. In some cases, like the copy-and-paste rumor, employees would have actively deleted posts. According to "Bloomberg", there are numerous other tools for internal reputation management in addition to Stormchaser.

The example shows how Facebook abuses its market power as a quasi-monopoly. Considering that Zuckerberg is said to have ambitions for the White House - the well-informed author Nick Bilton claims to have heard from close friends and associates that Zuckerberg is toying with the idea of running for President in 2024 - a new power complex appears here, which can hardly be contained with democratic control mechanisms. Facebook is its own referee. The company can use its algorithms to lower or mute unwanted voices - and thus immunize itself against external criticism. Even with the data scandal involving the Cambridge Analytica analysis company, one had the impression that the newsfeed hardly featured any critical articles on the subject. Maybe that was due to your own filter bubble, but maybe this hiding also had systemic causes.

Zuckerberg's rigid domestic policy, which contrasts in such a strange way with his pseudo-humanistic foreign policy, points to the problem that the political decision-making processes on the Internet have shifted to private platforms. Basically, Facebook is a virtual shopping mall in which house rights prevail and "visitors" who criticize the landlord can be expelled from the site. Only: A system in which you end up on the index because you joke about the boss is actually only known from authoritarian regimes.

A critical public, in which the general conditions and rules of the game of what is publicly practicable and sayable are negotiated, needs the medium of the public sphere like the air we breathe. But the more private corporations create publicity, the less public are the procedures in which the rules of the public game are discussed. The question of how critically Facebook users can write or discuss about Facebook could become the litmus test for digital democracy. It remains to be hoped that Zuckerberg will not run for the US presidential election at some point. Because then the once celebrated democracy tool Facebook would degenerate into a mere intranet.

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