Mark Zuckerberg and Existential Threats

Let's read Zuck's entire antitrust answer together.

Ranjan here, and today I'm will try to remain calm as I write about Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Warren.

Many Margins readers probably encountered the leaked Zuckerberg weekly town hall audio from earlier this week (the fact that they were leaked was, in itself, quite a story). The most striking part of the audio were his comments on antitrust and Elizabeth Warren.

The conventional wisdom seemed to be that his comments were innocuous, and even potentially beneficial for Facebook. It's worth taking a much closer look, because these few minutes lay out a number of clear themes of how Zuck thinks about antitrust.

IN THEIR ENTIRETY

To provide the best possible context, I'll include his entire antitrust answer, (including the question asked of him). All the Zuck quote blocks are sourced from The Verge.

I know this might feel a bit long for a newsletter, but it's very much worth looking at all of his words (emphasis added throughout is mine):

Question: With the recent FCC fine, investigation, and with the rise of politicians like Sen. Warren, I was wondering how personally worried you are about regulators coming in and breaking up Facebook?

Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I think you want to separate out a couple of things. I’m certainly more worried that someone is going to try to break up our company. Now, there’s a separate question about, at the end of the day, there is the rule of law — which, for all of the concern about the direction the country is going in, as someone running a company that operates in a lot of different countries, I have to say one of the things that I love and appreciate about our country the most is that we have a really solid rule of law, which is very different from a lot of other places around the world.

Like most trash talking, I’m both amused and annoyed by Zuck's confident retort that "someone is going to try". Significantly more worrying to me, however, is the language that follows.

He is setting up the framing of antitrust actions as a breakdown of the rule of law. To Zuckerberg, regulation is a bug, not a feature of democracy. This is central to his worldview; that civil society’s primary purpose is the allowance of unfettered capitalism. I normally would worry I’m reading way too much into the words, but Facebook’s actions over the past decade certainly lend credence to this.

Minimizing

So there might be a political movement where people are angry at the tech companies or are worried about concentration or worried about different issues and worried that they’re not being handled well.

This is an infuriating sentiment, and one I see regularly. That there is some "political movement where people are angry at the tech companies." It minimizes the righteous anger as an unfocused, personal one. No. People are angry about your platform's impact on our elections. About the live-streamed broadcast of racist mass murder. About the genocide and lynchings. About addiction and mental health consequences. It's not a political movement. It’s not even some coordinated, nicely branded “techlash.” It's just regular people, watching inaction and outcomes, who are fed up. 

The most important word

That doesn’t mean that, even if there’s anger and that you have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies ... I mean, if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean … it’s like, we care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.

Again, the trash talking. 'Like, I don't want to have to crush my own government, but....'. I know Zuck's persona of nerdy programmer has long disappeared, but the level of NFL Wide Receiver cockiness is still jarring to hear.

Most important in this passage is that the threat is existential to Facebook.

This is the part we all need to internalize. If regulators try to break up Facebook, they are coming after his family and he will fight. I'm sure this is nice to hear from your leader, but it's a critical point. It's them against the rest of us. It's Facebook employees vs. civil society. Having a reasoned discussion about the importance of competition in a dynamic, innovative economy is a non-starter. He lays out that in this battle, there is no middle ground. The word existential is everything.

At least we’re not Twitter

And I just think the case is not particularly strong on this … It’s just that breaking up these companies, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Amazon, is not actually going to solve the issues. And, you know, it doesn’t make election interference less likely. It makes it more likely because now the companies can’t coordinate and work together. It doesn’t make any of the hate speech or issues like that less likely. It makes it more likely because now ... all the processes that we’re putting in place and investing in, now we’re more fragmented.

It’s why Twitter can’t do as good of a job as we can. I mean, they face, qualitatively, the same types of issues. But they can’t put in the investment. Our investment on safety is bigger than the whole revenue of their company. [laughter] And yeah, we’re operating on a bigger scale, but it’s not like they face qualitatively different questions. They have all the same types of issues that we do.

AGAIN, the trash talking. And I thought my Boston-raised, longtime New Yorker self liked to talk shit. But more important is this argument that you need monopolistic scale to combat problems like election interference. This is a debate that should be front and center. This should be a Warren vs. Zuckerberg one-hour, broadcast only on free-to-air networks (side note: New Yorkers, check out Locast), debate.

Zuckerberg earlier lauded the rule of law as one of the keys to the success of the American economy. But it's clear he didn't read the chapter on competition as a fundamental requirement for an innovative, capitalist economy. It’s this very concentration that has allowed continued inaction, without decreasing users. It’s what allows for that repeated tech apology: "We know there are problems, but we're working on it and there remains much to be done. Machine Learning." Imagine if the Facebook Blue app was ever pressured from the business side to...actually improve things. 

They haven’t. Do you feel more comfortable about the role Facebook will play in the 2020 election than you did two years ago when the Russia stuff started coming out?

This problems are real

So yes, I think that the direction of the discussion is concerning. I at least believe, I think, there are real issues. I don’t think that the antitrust remedies are going to solve them. But I understand that if we don’t help address those issues and help put in place a regulatory framework where people feel like there’s real accountability, and the government can govern our sector, then yeah, people are just going to keep on getting angrier and angrier. And they’re going to demand more extreme measures, and, eventually, people just say, “Screw it, take a hammer to the whole thing.” And that’s when the rule of law comes in, and I’m very grateful that we have it.

[END OF THE PART ON ANTITRUST]

If there aren’t any Facebook-guided regulations to placate the population, people will get angrier. Once again, that deflection. This is about how people feel rather than real problems. I have to imagine he really believes this. I have to imagine most Facebook employees believe this. 

But, this is not about a feeling (but yes, you can clearly tell that I do feel anger). When Exxon spills oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it engenders anger, but there is a very real problem in need of fixing. When tobacco companies hide the cancer-causing effects of cigarettes for decades, people get angry, but the anger is not the problem to solve, it's the lung cancer.

And when journalists write about the problems of Facebook, Inc. it’s not for clicks (a common trope from FB folks). I think those in media are the most concerned, because they are the most in tune with the responsibilities that accompany influence . They understand, better than anyone, the power dynamic that underlies exposing someone to new ideas. And they clearly recognize the gravity of Facebook’s refusal to accept any of these responsibilities.

THE LEAK

There was a really interesting theory proposed by Jason Kint (a must-follow if you're into media/privacy/regulation):

The idea is that Facebook purposely leaked this audio, as they deemed it beneficial - and I admit, the fact that Zuckerberg happily posted The Verge story to his FB page does make it seem a bit off. Whether or not this was some four-dimensional comms chess move (livestreaming this week’s Q&A does make it seem like it could be), I'm more incredulous that Zuck very clearly seemed proud enough of the audio to "own it" and post it.

For all the reasons stated above, he appears to be proud of his words. He look at this, simply, as a general gallantly leading his troops into battle. This is what worries me the most.

TIN HATS

He has deemed this threat existential. Is it his fiduciary duty to take out Warren? This stuff certainly does not have to be in your face. Lower the cost dial on Trump Campaign Ads. Up the dial when the words "Native American Elizabeth Warren" are in a post. It ain't us, it's the algorithm. And just imagine if he had a candidate that would happily accept, and even encourage, election interference….

Note: I almost left this out to avoid the appearance of tin-hattiness, but this @DHH tweet made me leave it in:

Zuckerberg followed up that he will try not to antagonize her, but is he really acting in good faith?

Douglas Rushkoff made a great point: "What Zuckerberg doesn't get is that Elizabeth Warren isn't simply protecting America from Facebook, but Facebook from itself."  I loved this line because I agree with Zuck that the rule of law is one of the most important components of what makes the American economy succeed. Facebook has repeatedly shown that it is putting this stability at risk. Unchecked, the company poses a threat, not just to society at large, but even to themselves.

So it's up to the rest of us, and especially our government, to help keep them in check. After all, if at the end of the day, something existentially threatens you, you go to the mat and fight.

WHAT I'M READING

This Judd Legum piece on Facebook's political advertising policy is quite something. Facebook has clarified they "cannot" block clearly false information in a political ad because "political ads are ineligible for fact-checking." I get the thorny First Amendment issues that arise from evaluating the speech. I get this is complicated. This is where it comes down to good faith and why Zuckerberg's words above, that were considered innocuous by the conventional wisdom it seemed, are incredibly important. He's made it clear that it's the Facebook conglomerate over the good of society.

(Apparently, this is now okay):

As an addendum to this, yesterday afternoon, a few friends were chatting about how hopeless this all feels again. "Trump is tripling down on the idea that it's okay to pressure foreign leaders to interfere into our elections. He’s doing it openly. How is this okay?!"

This is the most important point: This will happen again. Trump will shock us into oblivion, while in the darkness of personalized Facebook feeds, millions of people will see information like above. The rest of us will be aghast at how people could possibly support someone so obscene, and our disdain for "them" will grow. And the cycle will continue.

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