In the first great meme war, when the foot soldiers of 4chan took to anonymous message boards in a burn-it-down effort to send Donald Trump to the White House, Hillary Clinton had no idea what was crawling out of the depths of the web and replicating across the internet.
The ordinary nastiness she’d come to expect from a lifetime in politics had warped into something much darker and more nihilistic, all fueled by misogyny, conspiracy theories, and other lies distributed to appear true. “I didn’t really know this was happening to me,” she told Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, at an event hosted by Emerson Collective at the Sundance Film Festival today. (Emerson owns a majority stake in The Atlantic.) “We did not understand what was going on below the radar screen.”
Now that Clinton gets it, she’s horrified—and she’s specifically alarmed by what she views as Mark Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to battle the spread of disinformation and propaganda on his own platform. There was the time, last spring, when a slowed-down video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught fire online. The distorted speed, which made Pelosi appear as though she was slurring her words, seemed designed to make her appear cognitively impaired. “Google took it off YouTube … so I contacted Facebook,” Clinton said. “I said, Why are you guys keeping this up? This is blatantly false. Your competitors have taken it down. And their response was, We think our users can make up their own minds.”
Listening to Clinton, I was struck by how remarkably similar her account was to something Zuckerberg had once told me. Facts, Zuckerberg had suggested, are best derived from foraging many opinions, ideally from the billions of humans who use his publishing platform, so that each individual might cherry-pick what to believe. (Cherry-pick is my word, not his.) If journalism’s mantra is “Seek truth and report it,” Facebook’s might be “Seek opinions and react to them.” “It’s not about saying, Here’s one view; here’s the other side,” Zuckerberg had said when I’d asked him to reconcile the apparent contradiction between fact and opinion. “You should decide where you want to be.”
I wrote at the time that Zuckerberg’s interpretation was unsatisfying for one thing, and Trumpian for another. When I asked Clinton today whether she too sees a Trumpian quality in Zuckerberg’s reasoning, she nodded. “It’s Trumpian,” she said. “It’s authoritarian.” (Facebook did not immediately provide a response to my request for comment from Zuckerberg.)
Clinton’s allusions to Zuckerberg as a world leader are fitting. “I feel like you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes,” she said, referencing conversations she’s had “at the highest levels” with Facebook. “He’s immensely powerful,” she told me. “This is a global company that has huge influence in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.”
Facebook is, in a sense, the world’s first technocratic nation-state—a real-time experiment in connecting humans at massive and unprecedented scale, with a population of users that eclipses any actual nation, nearly as big as China and India combined. It’s also an institution with gigantic levers at its disposal to affect the lives of its user-citizens. Facebook knows this. It has played with manipulating people’s emotions. It has trumpeted its ability to affect the outcome of an election. There’s good reason to believe, Clinton said, that Facebook is “not just going to reelect Trump, but intend[s] to reelect Trump.” We know for sure, at least, that Zuckerberg doesn’t want Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to be the president. In leaked audio of an internal Facebook meeting that emerged last fall, he referenced Warren’s interest in regulating Facebook and said he would “go to the mat and … fight” her.
Clinton seems to find the whole thing deeply unnerving. Zuckerberg has been “somehow persuaded,” she said, “that it’s to his and Facebook’s advantage not to cross Trump. That’s what I believe. And it just gives me a pit in my stomach.”
Facebook often defends its equivocations about the truth by claiming that it must protect the “free speech” of its users. “They have, in my view, contorted themselves into making arguments about freedom of speech and censorship,” Clinton said, “which they are hanging on to because it’s in their commercial interests.” Of course, the right to free speech is about protecting citizens from government overreach—and does not concern a person’s use of corporate publishing platforms. Incidentally, Trump has similarly co-opted the meaning of free speech and truth for his own political and personal gain. If it makes Trump look good, it’s true; if it does not, then it’s “fake news.” Perhaps the logical extension of all this is as follows: What’s good for Trump is good for Facebook, and vice versa.