Warren Fools Facebook with Fake Ads, Increases Pressure on Zuck

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In an episode of American Horror Story: Apocalypse, a high-ranking witch played by the inimitable Frances Conroy spits out some of the names of male leaders throughout history she always despised, like Attila the Hun and … Mark Zuckerberg. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren hasn’t gone quite as far as comparing the CEO of Facebook with a fifth-century warlord who tried to sack Constantinople, but her campaign has all but declared war against the social media giant for allowing political campaigns to run demonstrably false ads on the site. In yet another example of her campaign’s penchant for excellent trolling, Warren ran an ad saying that Facebook endorsed Donald Trump, an obvious lie intended to slap the Palo Alto-based company for its permissiveness about ads containing obvious lies. (To be fair, Twitter and YouTube have similar democracy-eroding policies of noninterference.)

To contextualize this single episode, Warren has explicitly called for the breakup of Amazon, Facebook, and Google, something many rank-and-file employees of those companies support. And earlier today, Warren tweeted that she won’t accept contributions “over $200 from executives at big tech companies, big banks, private equity firms, or hedge funds.” It is all part of an effort to run a campaign free of corporate influence that, in theory, Warren will leverage into a presidency where concentrated corporate power can no longer write its own rules and capture the agencies designed to regulate it. Or to just not have a federal government where one out of every 14 appointments goes to a lobbyist — you know, like the one we currently have.

Naturally, this has led to an escalating battle between the crusading progressive senator and the man — no longer a boy-king, since at 35 he’s old enough to be president himself — who sits atop an empire larger than any nation-state, with billions of users. Indeed, Zuckerberg himself admitted last November that Facebook is in fact at war. Whether this war has been fought for the company’s long-term survival or over Zuckerberg’s continued leadership has never been entirely clear. It seems as though internal factions have battled over the need for transparency. But the atmosphere of siege is intensifying.

Yesterday, Politico’s Natasha Bertrand reported that Zuckerberg has been dining off-the-record with prominent conservatives, including Fox News host and odious S.F. native Tucker Carlson and Trump critic-turned-apologist Sen. Lindsey Graham, to discuss “free speech” and potential partnerships. (We put “free speech” in scare-quotes here to avoid lending credence to the popular beliefs on the right that a nefarious axis of Big Tech and cultural Marxists conspires to silence conservatives and Republicans, and that the First Amendment means you can post all the lies you want without anyone criticizing you. And, if anything, Facebook-owned Instagram uses vague standards of what’s “inappropriate” that disproportionately affect women, sex workers, and LGBTQ people.)

Called out for these dinners in the form of a #DeleteFacebook backlash, Zuckerberg responded in the most peevish and self-aggrandizing way. “Meeting new people and hearing from a wide range of viewpoints is part of learning,” he wrote. “If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you do!”

This is dishonest and immensely frustrating for several reasons. First, there’s the implication that his critics on the left are willfully ignorant about the world and too gummed up with personal bias to even talk to anyone they don’t agree with. Second, Graham and Carlson aren’t ivory-tower conservatives looking for a nice academic joust about the merits of free trade; they’re savvy Republican operatives with a vested interest in skewing the playing field toward that party’s advantage. Carlson also happens to be an outright white supremacist, and as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham oversees the federal antitrust policy that could be used to break up Facebook. Lastly, Zuckerberg and Warren clearly have “different viewpoints” on what Facebook’s future ought to be, but instead of inviting her over for a private chat, he said he’d “go to the mat” against her. Where’s that willingness to engage in dialogue now?

It doesn’t take much effort to connect these dots. Decades of relentless accusations of “liberal bias!” have led venerable institutions like The New York Times to normalize once-radical beliefs and behaviors, and conservatives now want to apply that same strategy to social media. Meeting with a beleaguered CEO who needs all the allies he can get is shrewd. 

“We might not agree on everything,” you can almost hear Graham say to Zuckerberg, “but we believe in free speech, free markets, and not punishing businesses for their success.”

Confronted with its possible demise, it’s clear Facebook would prefer any alternative up to and including acting as an unwitting conduit for fake news on an industrial scale. The company conducted a post-mortem after the 2016 election, when Russian bots, Cambridge Analytica, and other nefarious trolls used the platform to disseminate misinformation far and wide — something Facebook knew about all along. But they seem to have abandoned any pretense to acting more prudently, since doing so might put their dominance in jeopardy.

Zuckerberg has said time and again that Facebook is not meant to be a referee in the political sphere, a convenient position that allows the company to earn money while disavowing the responsibility that comes with its global reach. In the meantime, we are cruising toward another nation-defining election fully aware it will be full of malevolent interference. And to think it was barely three years ago that the idea of “Zuck 2020” had enough legs to get him touring Ford plants and Black churches, tooling around South Bend with a little-known mayor named Pete Something.

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.