The misrepresentation of Zuckerberg’s comments on free speech

There’s an easy way to misrepresent and discredit a nuanced argument: simply strip what someone says of its context, oversimplify it and add your own interpretation of what was meant. Or easier still, lose sight of the bigger picture of what’s being discussed, get stuck on specifics and then argue away.

That’s more or less how media outlets reported Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on Facebook’s policies relating to free speech. This analysis teaches you how this was done, step by step.

1. Ditch the context

Headlines and subheads are especially weighty in reporting, because they deliver the news in a nutshell and set the tone for how readers take in the rest of the information. For these reasons, it’s especially important for those parts to be free of distortion and not cherry-picked. Here’s CNN’s subhead:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to clarify his controversial comments about Holocaust deniers Wednesday afternoon, hours after he was quoted saying some deniers who post on Facebook aren’t “intentionally getting it wrong.”

There are a couple of issues here. First, describing the comments as “controversial” before they’re even presented can influence the way readers see them. Second, while CNN correctly cites Zuckerberg, the quote is stripped of context. Here’s what was missing from what he said.

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, but I think—
It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent 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 figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.”

It’s no wonder a Vox explainer said, “Zuckerberg’s quote has been pulled out of context and sent ricocheting around the world.” (Ironically, that “explainer” also took what he said out of context and did a little ricocheting of its own.)

The excerpt above provides a series of nuances that CNN’s version didn’t. For instance, Zuckerberg correctly alludes to the fact that human intent can’t be objectively ascertained, except perhaps by the doer of an action. This particular problem is what the justice system grapples with in many cases.

What’s also lost is that, regardless of intent, penalizing or barring people from the platform for making false or inaccurate statements could be a slippery slope — not just for Facebook, but really for anyone, considering human fallibility. Aside from losing these types of distinctions, ditching the context also paves the way for gross oversimplifications.

2. Boil it way, way down

In 2009, some criticized Facebook for allowing anti-Semitic pages on its platform. The company said at the time, “We want to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.” And in his interview with Recode last week, Zuckerberg explained how Facebook would deal with similar content:

What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.

Compare that to The Guardian’s rendition:

Zuckerberg, who has also come under fire for Facebook’s role in election interference efforts and the company’s misuse of personal data, reiterated his commitment to allowing abhorrent content on the platform in the latest interview.

Writing that Zuckerberg “reiterated his commitment to allowing abhorrent content” oversimplifies and misrepresents what he said. And juxtaposing it with two issues that Facebook has “come under fire for” also doesn’t help convey his point of view in an objective way. As far as The Guardian is concerned, Zuckerberg and his company are committed to allowing “abhorrent” content with no rhyme or reason.

3. Interpret away

(Don’t try this at home, kids.)

When oversimplification and the omission of context isn’t enough, there’s always the substitution of facts with one’s own interpretation of them. The Verge’s subheadline is, unfortunately, a prime example here: “Facebook recommits to providing a platform for misinformation.” This completely mischaracterizes the platform and Zuckerberg’s comments.

4. Lose sight of the big picture

One of the hallmarks of an intelligent mind is the ability to differentiate content from process — that is, specifics from the bigger picture. In this case, Zuckerberg and his interviewer hit on various content points: Holocaust deniers, conspiracy sites, hoaxes, fake news, misinformation. What process ties them all together? Free speech.

In other words, the boundary that Zuckerberg seemed to be exploring during the interview was that between free speech and what might be considered “offensive speech.” For that purpose, he referenced Holocaust deniers and the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged, noting both ideas are false and possibly offensive, but that the question of censoring them must be weighed beyond one’s likes or dislikes — even his. In fact, Zuckerberg said:

I’m not defending any specific content here. I think a lot of the content that’s at play is terrible. I think when you get into discussions around free speech, you’re often talking at the margins of content that is terrible and what should ... but defending people’s right to say things even if they can be bad.

How many of the outlets analyzed included this quote? None. How many of them even mentioned the term “free speech”? One (The Guardian). Talk about missing the point!

Here’s what happens when one trades the substance of an argument for specifics: Once people lose sight of the bigger picture (free speech vs. offensive speech, in this case), it’s easy to focus on the content points and argue them away. You can preempt it with a line like the New York Times’, “That’s when Mr. Zuckerberg brought up the Holocaust.” And then you can follow it up with a line like The Guardian’s, which also happens to be an oversimplification:

Mark Zuckerberg defended the rights of Facebook users to publish Holocaust denial posts.

A more accurate version of that would be:

Mark Zuckerberg defended free speech rights of Facebook users, citing examples such as people who deny the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

As long as you keep the focus on hot content points such as Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theories, and away from free speech, readers can rush to judgement and conclude that Zuckerberg and his company are wrong.

The takeaway

Facebook’s policies on which content to remove from its site are by no means black or white. For instance, last week the company said it would work with unnamed local groups in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to determine which posts could possibly contribute to violence there.

Yet Zuckerberg was clear about the principles the company is weighing as it defines the new policies. He mentioned what they’re balancing is “free expression and a safe and authentic community,” adding:

The principles that we have on what we remove from the service are: If it’s going to result in real harm, real physical harm, or if you’re attacking individuals, then that content shouldn’t be on the platform.

These policies are new territory, as far as the company is concerned, and it may be a while before they’re clearly defined. The outlets analyzed did include quotes like the one above, but some of the coverage of the new measures focuses more on dramatic criticism of the company than an exploration of the complex issues at play.

By reporting on Zuckerberg’s statements in this way, media outlets may have inadvertently discouraged free speech — one of the core principles the press is charged with protecting in the U.S. — and misrepresented one of its seeming proponents.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media