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WSJ report implies Zuckerberg believes social media users must police themselves

Maybe folks on the right should have renewed appreciation for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday about the company’s internal struggle to control certain users.

Since 2016, many on the left have clung to the notion that Donald Trump is president today largely because social media memes by Russian internet trolls persuaded voters to reject Hillary Clinton.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report noted, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, ran “interference operations” through “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.” Mueller noted that the IRA bought $100,000 in Facebook ads during the election.

It’s highly unlikely those ads swayed the election that much. Trump won largely because Clinton was a badly flawed candidate who ran a bad campaign in 2016. Still, as the Journal reported, Facebook used its experience during that election to ask if its platform was as divisive as critics maintained.

The answer after an internal review, according to the Journal, was yes.

The company’s research found, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Failure by Facebook to correct this, said internal documents quoted by the Journal, would provide users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

But the Journal maintains that efforts to correct the situation, primarily by policing “super-sharers,” or people who were deemed hyperactive on the platform, and considered its most hyperpartisan users, largely were rejected by senior executives. The Journal suggests that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s policy director, played a central role in shelving the proposed changes. 

According to the Journal, Kaplan, once a deputy chief of staff for George W. Bush, worried efforts to mandate civility were overly “paternalistic.” In that light, the internal reform push earned the moniker “Eat Your Veggies.”

Kaplan, according to the Journal, was reluctant because of concern “that some proposed changes would have disproportionately affected conservative users and publishers.” Carols Gomez Uribe, the former head of Facebook’s internal “integrity teams” and the leader of the drive to rein in super-sharers, acknowledged to the Journal that “proposals like his did disproportionately affect conservatives in the U.S.”

When the sides brought the issue to Zuckerberg, the Journal noted, Facebook’s founder told them to proceed with the changes but significantly tone down the mechanisms that would control the content flow. Moreover, Zuckerberg “signaled he was losing interest in the effort to recalibrate the platform in the name of social good.”

Liberals, who were angered by Zuckerberg’s refusal to yank political ads that may be considered untruthful, will seize on this article as further evidence that Facebook’s chief must be pressured to censor the content on his platform — if only to promote some fanciful idea that social media is driving a wedge between Americans, rather than the media at large, our political leaders, or our individual philosophy.

But Zuckerberg deserves more credit, especially from conservatives, for this “Republicans buy sneakers, too” moment, as Michael Jordan famously put it.

Other social media platforms already work overtime to dilute the influence of conservatives. Zuckerberg’s decision to treat his customers as adults responsible for their own behavior as well as for evaluating the content they find on Facebook is rare within his industry. 

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