Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, president and chief executive officer of Facebook, was grilled this week for an hour by members of a U.S. Congressional committee. One question that Zuckerberg failed to answer convincingly was about Facebook’s policy of allowing nearly every shade of political movement to use its platform, no matter how reprehensible, up to and including neo-Nazi candidates for office.
There were a lot of interesting, and frustrating, details in Zuckerberg’s performance, but I was struck by the fact that a century after what would soon become known as the Nazi party was founded in in Germany, the most prolific purveyor of Nazi ideology today, and indeed of anti-Semitism in general and other forms of racism, is not the spawn of Josef Goebbels or Julius Streicher - but a 35 year-old American Jew. Indeed, for the conspiratorial minded, the richest Jew in the world.
I’m not about to embark on a "Mark Zuckerberg is the devil" column. There are others, much better qualified to assess his contribution to the degradation of humanity.
Another much more eloquent Jew, British actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen already attacked Zuckerberg last week on Twitter, asking: "If he owned a fancy restaurant and 4 neo-Nazis came goose-stepping into the dining room and were talking loudly about wanting to kill "Jewish scum," would he serve them an elegant eight course meal? Or would tell them to get the f**k out of his restaurant?"
Unlike Facebook, which I have never used, Baron Cohen has provided me with many hours of joy in his various television and film characters. But I’m not entirely sure I agree with my compatriot on this.
Not that I buy Zuckerberg’s claim to be adhering to the First Amendment for one moment. His real reasons for not exercising more discretion over what is posted are almost certainly due to the great expense that Facebook would have to bear if it were to moderate content to that level. And probably also to the fear that it may lose some of its two and a half billion users, should they feel they are being censored.
But the question here isn’t what Zuckerberg really wants or thinks, but whether kicking neo-Nazis off Facebook will actually make a difference.
- Sacha Baron Cohen makes Nazi analogy to slam Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook policy
- Why we must put Nazis in their nineties on trial
- Facebook's Holocaust denial policy: Delete posts in countries where it can be sued
- After blocking anti-Semites, Facebook says will still allow Holocaust denial
To take Baron Cohen’s analogy a step further. What happens after the restaurant owner, quite rightly, kicks the neo-Nazis out of his establishment? Well, the genteel diners would be spared their presence and could continue eating in peace. But the neo-Nazis won’t starve. They’ll find somewhere or something else to eat.
A nice meal in a fancy restaurant gives you a boost. But you can do without it. And while there’s no denying the devastating efficacy of Facebook to political movements, Nazism - and every other noxious ideology of the previous century - flourished and spread across the continents without social media.
Much of the media of their day, the more "respectable" newspapers, radio stations and publishing companies were closed to them. Today’s radical ideologies are adept at evolving and spreading themselves on other much wilder networks than Facebook, such as 8chan and Gab.
I have absolutely no sympathy for Zuckerberg’s motives. Though you’ve got to admire the cynical reincarnation of the geek who made zillions off a computer program originally intended to rank the hotness of fellow college students as a freedom of speech warrior. All that money should be sufficient compensation to having become a punching bag of politicians and pundits everywhere. At the very least, it will buy him enough therapists, emotional healers and personal coaching to see through his impending mid-life crisis.
But I can’t take him seriously as the main abettor of the latest wave of racism.
And I wouldn’t judge Zuckerberg as a Jew for refusing to weed out the Nazis from his platform had he not tried to use his own Jewishness to publicly atone for Facebook’s sins.
Two years ago, following the first serious wave of criticism of Facebook's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Zuckerberg waved eloquent. On "Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews when we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness for our mistakes," he asked to be forgiven "for the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together." But there was something suspiciously self-serving about his teshuvah.
Those of us who were skeptical then of Zuckerberg’s Yom Kippur sincerity seem to have been right. The company has failed to change its ways. One sincerely hopes that Facebook fails in its latest plan to launch Libra, its own digital currency, because one thing the world doesn’t need right now is even more power in Zuckerberg’s hands.
But a couple of things should also be said in mitigation. Zuckerberg is far from the only Jew who has helped anti-Semites this past year. At least he did it for money. What about the leaders and activists and journalists who helped the enemy out of blind dogma and political opportunism?
Whether those on the right who seek to absolve Viktor Orban of his anti-Semitic-style campaigns because he supports Israel, or argue that Donald Trump certainly can’t have anything against the Jews, after all his daughter is married to one and look, she even converted.
Or those on the left who excuse Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of Labour to a Jew-hating environment because he’s "only criticizing Zionism," or just this week whitewashing Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitic remarks, because look, she just endorsed Bernie Sanders. None of them are less hypocritical than Zuckerberg. All of them are Jew-washing.
The other point in Zuckerberg’s favor is that there is an advantage to having all this hatred out there online, in the public eye. Whether it’s aspiring candidates to elected office and high-profile jobs, whose past utterances (before they needed to pretend any respectability) can be easily vetted, or the spontaneity of social media posting or tweeting, which sometimes leads politicians and other prominent figures, to blurt out something they would otherwise have kept to themselves.
When Donald Trump began his campaign in 2015, he was already a reality TV mega-star and would soon prove to be impervious of all scandal, no matter what he said or was revealed to have done.
But had Facebook or Twitter existed before NBC launched The Apprentice in 2004, and had Trump with his say-anything-about-everything stream of consciousness been on either then, he would have never been cast as star of the show. His blatant racism, sexism and rampant white supremacist tendencies would have been too widely known for them to touch him with a barge-pole.
We’re all better off now we can access, in advance, the toxic opinions of future politicians trying to slither into the mainstream from the far fringes. Leave Zuckerberg and his company to float or sink on their own terms.
Hate and racism and anti-Semitism won’t go away if we force him to purge it from Facebook. Better to fight the Nazis out in the open.