Recode just published a doozy of an interview. Kara Swisher, its cofounder and current editor at large, sat down with Mark Zuckerberg for its Recode Decode podcast. Among other things, Swisher brought up the recent controversy over Facebook’s refusal to ban the conspiracy theory site Infowars from its platform. Facebook’s rationale has been that it doesn’t want to ban dissenting views, and that if it cracked down on Infowars, it would be taking a partisan stance.
But Infowars isn’t merely partisan. It willfully misleads readers. For instance, it has peddled claims that the Sandy Hook shooting was fake, that the government controls the weather, and that Hillary Clinton and her fellow democratic party leaders ran a clandestine child sex ring in a pizza parlor’s basement. These claims are all plainly fake—even dangerous—and yet Infowars has continued to spread them. So were Facebook to ban the site, it would essentially be fulfilling its pledge to crack down on disinformation.
But in this new interview, Zuckerberg not only doubled down on the choice to leave Infowars on the site. He took it a step further. Here’s the full quote (emphasis added by me):
Let’s take this a little closer to home. So I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong—I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong. It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think as important as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public leaders who we respect do, too. I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say we are going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.
Let’s unpack this a little. Essentially Zuckerberg is claiming that every disagreement boils down to a difference of opinion. In his example–that some people believe that the slaughtering of around 6 million Jews and millions of others didn’t happen–Zuckerberg says this view is okay if the people saying it are not “intentionally getting it wrong.”
In other words, if someone espouses a view that’s both dangerous and factually incorrect, it’s totally okay as long as they believe what they are saying. The implication is that facts don’t matter because everything is up for interpretation.
Holocaust denial is one of the more powerful tools that white supremacists use to prove their ideology’s worth. Zuckerberg giving such sentiments a pass on his platform paves the way for all kinds of hate speech to run rampant (which it surely already does).
Ultimately, Zuckerberg’s thoughts on this matter shouldn’t come as a shock. Facebook isn’t a platform for the free exchange of ideas–it’s a business whose purpose is to serve ads to as many people as possible. What he wants is to make money, and for that, Facebook needs engagement. By allowing for holocaust deniers and Infowars fans, Zuckerberg is simply making sure he has as more eyeballs to which he can serve ads.
The debate over Infowars gets at Facebook’s broader stance on fringe content. The platform is dependent on engagement, which is why hate, outrage, and fear-mongering are so integral. They are its lifeblood. Whether he admits it or not, Zuckerberg knows that Facebook needs this content for revenue generation much more than it needs fact-checking or hand-wave-y pledges to crack down on misinformation.
Perhaps this quote isn’t exactly what Zuckerberg intended to say. But even if he does walk back his claims, we finally got a raw look at how the Facebook founder views the biggest problem plaguing his company.