Amid Trump’s lies, what to do about a problem like Facebook?

Amid Trump’s lies, what to do about a problem like Facebook?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (Creative Commons Wikimedia)

When the journalist Michael Kinsley wrote in 1984 that a gaffe “is when a politician tells the truth,” perhaps he saw the future.

Kinsley could not, however, have foreseen our current political climate. We live in an era in which the only thing limiting the White House strategy, if such a thing exists, is the boundary of our president’s imagination.

And what an imagination it is. He is a whirling dervish of defamatory fantasy. He is the Tasmanian Devil, cycloning about, chucking lies liberally at anything that moves. He does not wait around to see what sticks. By that time, the campaign has moved on to another salacious morsel of “disinformation,” the euphemism reporters deploy these days.

Tell our president that Joe Biden likes sandwiches, and our president, within an hour, will have concocted a story about the Democratic front-runner sharing sandwiches with corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors. Meanwhile, Biden’s team will have convened a press conference to refute the lie, and serious-minded political reporters will file millions of inches on deadline about the damned thing.

The strategy works with really any politician in Trump’s sights, although, if it is a woman he’s targeting, her appearance and relative attractiveness to him will invariably come up as well. For a politician often thought of as unpredictable, he’s really quite predictable in this manner.

It is as if Trump bypasses every aisle at the supermarket and spends his time devouring tabloids at the checkout line.

And if the president has an erstwhile ally in this scheme, it is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of social media juggernaut Facebook.

Progressives and really anyone ulcerating at the prospect of a second Trump term are fixating on Zuckerberg these days because his titanic social media network has doggedly resisted calls for it to decline dishonest political advertisement, Trump’s stock-in-trade. And anyone who lived through the 2016 election knows Zuckerberg’s company failed, atrociously, to limit the limitless abundance of “fake news” on its site.

It doesn’t help that Zuckerberg’s reportedly held private meets with Trump toadies like Tucker Carlson and Sen. Lindsey Graham, amid speculation that the billionaire wants to appease Trump and, potentially, head off an effort by Trump’s Justice Department to break up the ubiquitous company.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren played Trump’s game last week, sort of, when she uncorked an intentionally false ad on Facebook claiming Zuckerberg endorsed Trump.

“Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies — explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine,” Warren tweeted. “This week, we decided to see just how far it goes.

“We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook.”

If social media forums like Facebook, Twitter and Google conceive of themselves a kind of digital town square, the place where we debate our driving issues, they must do so with some modicum of responsibility.

The stunt didn’t go over well with some, but Warren’s jab at Zuckerberg made its point and made it effectively.

If social media forums like Facebook, Twitter and Google conceive of themselves a kind of digital town square, the place where we debate our driving issues, they must do so with some modicum of responsibility.

Free speech is one thing, and false speech is another.

Newspapers and mainstream media outlets once held a firm grip on this role, but as the president is fond of reminding us, those days are history. Yet the responsibility that comes with this role should not fade with them.

Free speech is one thing, and false speech is another. Anyone who traffics in news, and I’ve spent my professional life doing so, understands when they do so that it is not just their credibility that is at stake. The lives and livelihoods of the people we write, speak and pontificate about are at stake, and the courts offer a legal remedy in libel and slander cases for those grievously wronged.

Social media networks, which rely on third-party fact-checkers, consider themselves exempt from such concerns, but they are gravely mistaken.

As a Politico report examined this week, Democrats contesting Trump’s exponential dishonesty – and it is not just Biden – will be put to the test on an hourly basis. And their willingness to engage with the liars, jettisoning outdated political stratagems, will be put on a pedestal.

Is it better to let a lie linger and, hopefully, perish unnoticed by the masses? Or is it better to unmask the thing quickly, risking further exposure for such political tall tales? One option, to leave it to the social media giants, is clearly no option at all.

Phillipe Reines, a longtime advisor to Hillary Clinton, knows intimately the dangers of playing hands-off with Trump’s provocations.

“For 15 years, at least half the time I, or we, would say to Hillary, ‘Let’s not give that oxygen,’” Reines told Politico this week. “And it was a mistake! You can’t let anything go. We will all go to our deaths never hearing Donald Trump say, ‘I won’t dignify that with an answer.’”

Indeed, as that report noted, Beto O’Rourke’s struggling campaign has pondered in recent weeks whether to combat a meme that suggests the Texas Democrat is a “furry,” or someone overly fond of anthropomorphic animals.

Another social media attack on O’Rourke claimed the gunman at an August mass shooting in West Texas had a Beto sticker on his vehicle, a lie with clearly more pernicious intent.

The current focus on Facebook has to do with the company’s willingness to allow Trump advertisements repeating the president’s debunked claims of Biden corruption in Ukraine. The company is not handling the attention well.

“We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” Facebook’s Nick Clegg, vice president for global affairs and communications, said last month.

Fine. If Facebook does not wish to have that role, it should relinquish it altogether, ceasing all political advertising. But as Warren noted in her broadside last week, that’s not likely. Zuckerberg and company will make millions off it instead.

Should this continue, members of the public and members of the press like myself will face pressure to disassociate ourselves from the unrepentant network, to “delete Facebook,”. And while some might very well reach that point, I’m loath to believe that removing fact-based information from Facebook is a practical solution.

But in the meantime, Americans – through their government, through their advocacy – will have to hold the Facebooks and the Googles and the Twitters accountable.

If Facebook cannot separate profit from principles, Americans will struggle to separate fiction from fact.

Power without responsibility is dangerous. Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley creation are fond of one and not the other. Zuckerberg, a man rather associated with mythical anti-social behavior, will have to, at some point, consider the social contract that comes with his social network.

Such negligence, for the moment, is an apparent danger to Democrats, but far more importantly, it is a danger to our society.

Because if Facebook cannot separate profit from principles, Americans will struggle to separate fiction from fact.