"They're killing people," the president of the United States said about Facebook last week.
And, since Joe Biden made them aware of this fact, it's no longer manslaughter: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg can't claim that they're killing all the tens of thousands of people that they're killing by accident or in ignorance, because the President has informed them. So anti-vaxx FB, or its vestiges, is mass murder. It's shocking that Zuckerberg & co. are still roaming free.
The moral panic about social media now far surpasses previous outbreaks of hysteria over movies, comic books, and television. We've gotten to "Murderers!" Also the Biden administration is working ever-more closely with the killers, which makes you wonder how serious they are about their accusations. Serious enough to repeat them all day. Not serious enough to act like they believe what they’re saying, however.
So it's unlikely that Zuckerberg and Sandberg will do hard time for all the killings. But they’re definitely going to have to deal with the government telling them every day what they can and can’t publish. "Within the Surgeon General's Office, we're flagging posts for Facebook that spread disinformation," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki last Thursday. "We are in regular touch with the social media platforms and those engagements typically happen through members of our senior staff and also members of our COVID-19 team."
Let me get this straight. Out of the Surgeon General's office, the Biden administration is running a social-media monitoring operation, flagging posts it regards as problematic, and then forwarding the list to Facebook, which promptly removes them and perhaps blocks the people who posted them, because the administration is working closely with people it regards as mass killers, in order to inform the public.
Now, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC: they don't think that's a story worth covering, though it led FOX every hour on Friday. In this case, they've just been polarized into blindness. Because this is obviously censorship, and obviously unconstitutional. It amounts to prior restraint, and it has chilling implications.
You might think that the administration’s only helping social media companies flag posts that violate the companies' own policies, and what's wrong with that? It's not government censorship. But these policies—for example the one where FB blocked people who speculated that Covid came from a lab—were developed under government pressure.
And government pressure, every time out, explicitly or by implication, is existential. Right now, the question of whether to use anti-trust laws to break up FB is being bandied about at the FTC. The IRS is sitting on all of Sheryl Sandberg's tax returns and those of the company. They may well be flagging problems there too. The government accusing you of killing people and monitoring your publishing operation is very different from other sorts of people doing the same thing; it is backed by coercive force.
So, how big is the social-media-monitoring operation run out of the Surgeon General's office? Whatever it is right now, it's too small to really keep a handle on all of FB's 2.85 billion users. They'll need to hire thousands, essentially establish a new agency. It's very of-this-moment that we'd run the censorship out of the public health establishment; government social-media control is going to be instituted in the name of "science." "Science," by the way, these days refers explicitly to a set of political positions associated with the Democratic party.
Kara Swisher, who once admired tech bros as geniuses but now hints that there ought to be camps, wrote a remarkable column for the Times over the weekend in which she said that Biden is wrong that they're killing people, but also that what he said, "is in many ways true," as she casually likens Zuckerberg and Sandberg to terrorists.
Swisher concludes: "Is Facebook killing people, then, since it provided the invention that allows all this to happen? Not exactly." But, not exactly not. Lies kill, she says, and "now lies travel much faster—thanks to Facebook." I guess that's not an argument for murder prosecutions, though it's not not such an argument. However, it's going to be an argument for running a social media monitoring/flagging operation out of the Surgeon General's office. (It's also an argument that's going to be peculiarly unconvincing to the Supreme Court, I predict.)
One could say exactly the same about the telegraph, for instance: it did allow lies to travel faster. And it's true for the printing press. Pushing back a bit further, you could say the same about writing, or the invention of spoken language. Also, whatever allows people to travel faster allows lies to travel faster: the airplane, the automobile, the train, domesticating the horse, the damned wheel. Get me? Kara has cohorts, for example the FB freakout artist and executive editor of the Atlantic Adrienne LaFrance, author of Facebook is a Doomsday Machine, which argues that "megascale is as big a threat as megadeath." They're just the sort of people who would’veargued, in print, to ban the printing press.
Eventually, maybe we'll settle into some kind of reasonable assessment of the effects of social media, like we sort of have with regard to television or comic books. But that change may come, like the others, only after social media has been superseded and absorbed as a communication technology, only when we have something new to freak out about.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell