What do Zuckerbergs bromides about American values mean to Facebook users in Kashmir or the Philippines?
When Facebook wrote to Joe Bidens campaign to say it would not back down from its decision to exempt politicians from its ban on advertising false statements, it was not Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg who signed the letter, but a not particularly well-known staffer named Katie Harbath.
As Facebooks director of public policy for global elections, Harbath has been a prominent voice in defending the controversial policy. If people have a problem with Facebooks policy, they have a problem with the way political speech is protected in this country, she wrote in an op-ed in USA Today this week. Fundamentally we believe that, in a democracy, its better to let voters make their own decisions, not companies like Facebook.
Amid all this attention, Harbaths professional history as a Republican party operative has become the subject of much discussion among Democrats and the liberal media. Surely, the narrative goes, Harbath is a Trojan horse for the GOP, twisting and shaping Facebooks policies in order to tilt the scales toward the Republican party in 2020.
But the arguments Harbath is making for Facebook and the arguments Facebooks critics are making about Harbath suffer from the same frustrating myopia: they view Facebook principally as an American company concerned with American politics. This narrow frame has distorted and degraded the debate over political speech on Facebook at a time when it is crucial to attempt to understand Facebook as a global phenomenon with globe-shaking power.
Harbaths op-ed repurposed a line from Zuckerbergs Georgetown speech a talking point already repeated many times in interviews, before Congress and to investors: I dont think its right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.
The glaring problem with this justification is that only a small fraction (less than 10%) of Facebooks 2.45 billion users live in this democracy, and many live in countries that are not democratic at all.
I have yet to hear Zuckerberg or Harbath offer any commentary on how this policy will affect non-American members of Facebooks so-called community and thats not for lack of trying. Ive asked Facebook repeatedly whether it plans to have a different policy on speech by politicians or political advertisements in non-democratic countries over the past two weeks, to no avail.
This isnt just a gotcha question. It is a matter of urgent importance, and one that speaks to what, to me, is a much more telling aspect of Harbaths professional history: her actual work for Facebook.
A blockbuster December 2017 article in Bloomberg detailed Harbaths extraordinary track record leading a little-known Facebook global government and politics team thats neutral in that it works with nearly anyone seeking or securing power. According to the report, Harbaths staff became de facto campaign workers for political campaigns in some of the worlds biggest democracies; they assisted Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, and Andrzej Duda in Poland.
Two years after the articles publication, its impossible not to notice that democracy has been severely degraded under the regimes that the Facebook team helped achieve power.
What do Zuckerbergs bromides about democracy mean to Facebook users in Kashmir, where Modi has blocked the internet for 13 weeks and on Thursday dissolved the constitution? What do his paeans to the free press mean to Facebook users in the Philippines, where Duterte has used his office to attempt to silence an independent journalist working to expose extrajudicial killings and human rights violations? Will Facebook update its Success Story about playing a central role in the way Duda is innovating communication between the government and the public as fears grow that democracy in Poland is eroding under his partys rule?
The paradox here is that Facebook is more accountable to US lawmakers and reporters than it is to any other countrys. It is incumbent on American politicians and the American press to keep this in mind and push Facebook to answer questions about how its policies will apply to the vast majority of its users.
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