Here is an email Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, sent to John Podesta, unearthed by Wikileaks.
This was in response to a condolences email Podesta sent after Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly, but the alt-right is callously teasing out the sentence where the COO of a major corporation expresses support for Hillary Clinton as evidence that Facebook is showing its political bias.
To that, I say: 1) Sadly, it’s not true, and 2) that’s too bad, because I personally wish that Facebook did openly express bias against Donald Trump.
The Wikileaks emails come only days after it was revealed that several Facebook employees tried to delete Donald Trump’s posts as hate speech after the GOP candidate called for a ban on Muslims in the United States. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, however, ruled against the deletions. Zuckerberg also pulled most of its editorial team after it was revealed that they were favoring left-leaning posts in its trending items section and suppressing pro-Trump posts. Just last week, Zuckerberg also defended Facebook board member Peter Thiel’s right to support Trump (Thiel, who brought down Gawker, donated $1.25 million to the Trump campaign last week).
Facebook is a Silicon Valley company, where the majority of its younger, more diverse, college-educated employees do not support the candidacy of Donald Trump. That is their right. It is also their right, as employees of a private company, to suppress posts favorable to Donald Trump, just as it is Zuckerberg’s right to tell them that they cannot. Facebook is a private company, and it does not have to oblige by the First Amendment. It can express any political opinion it wishes, and only has to face consequences from its user base, some of whom might choose to bail over any decision Facebook makes that might affect coverage of the political candidates.
Zuckerberg, however, has made the decision to remain neutral, because that decision is the one most beneficial to the company’s bottom line. Where it concerns Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg has chosen profits over politics. That’s fair.
But here is where it is a problem: Though it doesn’t actually produce much in the way of news content, Facebook is the largest distributor of news content on the Internet. While it doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to any one political candidate, if it wants to compete with mainstream news organizations, it should have an obligation to the truth.
“That’s where we are right now,” Ira Glass stated on the most recent episode of This American Life. “The presentation of facts presented as opinion, and then everyday a barrage of untruths are presented as truth and we’re just supposed to suck it up. That’s the moment we live in. That’s our country right now. And this is going to continue after the election, no matter who wins. This is the rest of our lives. This post-truth politics … it’s easier than ever to check to see if facts are true, but facts matter less than ever.”
We have more facts at our disposal than anytime in the history of the world, and more and more, people are choosing only those facts that suit them. Facebook — by remaining neutral not only to politics but to facts — is pushing the post-truth era, exposing to its millions and millions of readers those half-truths and untruths, and using its algorithm to expose to those less inclined to believe facts to even more untruths. If, for instance, you follow Alex Jones’ “Infowars” or Rush Limbaugh on Facebook, their algorithm will expose you to more news stories with a similar disregard for the truth until at some point, Breitbart and Drudge dominate their feeds, until the alt-right is completely stuck in their own echo chamber, a feedback loop of their own design.
This is why so many people believe that Obama is a Muslim, why so many believe that he was born outside of the United States, and why so many Trump supporters actually, honestly believe that Hillary Clinton started the birther lie. Their political lives have become divorced from the facts, and Facebook — by remaining neutral — is the leading disseminator of those lies, and those on the alt-right are never pushed back on the lies. They just sit and stew in fabrications.
What’s the answer for Facebook? I’m not sure. The company’s fear is that users will flock to another service if it betrays its political biases, but by refusing to weed out the hate speech, or the lies and half truths presented as facts, it’s also alienating a number of users interested in seeing reality reflected in their feeds, or at least a reality as carefully curated as the family photos we post. I’m not suggesting that Facebook favor one candidate over another, but it would be nice if it the social media site showed a preference for the truth.