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What is the best way to describe the relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump? To borrow a handy Facebook metaphor: it’s complicated.
One of technology’s most powerful kingpins – perhaps one of the least cynical people I know in Silicon Valley – has been consistently played by the undisputed Internet troll champion, who works on the simple principle that a sucker is born every minute. In this case, that fool was Mr. Zuckerberg, who apparently only now decided that Mr. Trump may not be anxious to do his best to improve the conversation, and may even be trying to blow it all to pieces.
On Friday, Mr Zuckerberg finally dropped the gavel, stating that the former president would be banned from Facebook for at least two years – a lesser sentence than that of Twitter, which finally banned him. However, Facebook said it would only let Mr. Trump return “when the risk to public safety has decreased”.
The chance of that is great once you’ve seen how persistently and persistently Mr. Trump continues to puff at his sousaphone of lies. This has been his modus operandi since the minute he put his thumbs on a cellphone keypad a long time ago – behavior that only got more frightening and dangerous over time. Therefore, it was not easy to imagine that an often clever, forward-looking entrepreneur like Mr Zuckerberg was being played for a fool by Mr Trump.
But anyone who has spent a little time with Mr. Zuckerberg knows that he is uncomfortable with his immense power; he torments himself deeply about every step he takes. In my countless conversations with him over many years – often late at night on a phone that made them feel like they were sitting in the dormitory – he claimed that he trusted the larger Facebook community, the hideous, often toxic, filth that flowed to be eliminated over its ever larger platform.
Mr. Zuckerberg believes in human perfection. I studied the use of propaganda in Nazi Germany and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I told him that there is no low point some people won’t sink to if it’s in their best interest.
Once, when Mr. Zuckerberg was still talking to me, we discussed far less serious rule violations on Facebook, topics that seem strange today in comparison. To lighten the mood, I conjured up the old journalism trumpet: He should trust, yes, but always check.
“If your mom says she loves you, check it out,” I said to him, trying to convince him that he couldn’t rely on the community or algorithms or anything but his own decision-making when the impetus from bad actors inevitably came.
He didn’t get the joke at all. He also missed my bigger point that the world is an ugly place and that he had given some very evil people within it a powerful weapon of destruction. They would take advantage of his belief that the truth will always come out.
Even now I find it difficult to describe the empty look on his typically empty face. It was like speaking in another language to another species on another planet.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Mr. Zuckerberg never seems to be motivated by a lower instinct – unlike, for example, Tesla founder Elon Musk, his polar opposite in engineering. Mr. Zuckerberg is the superego to Mr. Musk’s identity. It took an excruciatingly long time – a potentially harmful long time – to make an obvious decision. The other tweets ruthlessly – and possibly illegally – and lets the value of the cryptocurrency fly up and down like a roller coaster.
At some point, the government can easily cope with Mr Musk’s possible violation of the SEC. But no one can turn back the clock to what Mr Zuckerberg did by giving in to Mr Trump, who never complied with a Facebook rule that he did not desecrate. The January 6 attack on the Capitol should not have come as a surprise to anyone who tied the dots, something Mr. Zuckerberg had so far adamantly refused.
What does this mean for our understanding of freedom of expression? On the one hand, there are traffic rules for every other industry and if Mr Trump consistently and purposefully crashes his clown car, he should pay the price for it. Looking at his punitive censorship – even though it’s on a private platform that isn’t the public space – is exactly what he cynically hopes we will.
But on the other hand, it is obvious that we need to debate whether the decision to live or die online should be in the hands of a corporate leader who has no accountability – all part of a larger discussion of consolidating power and who we are will do to lessen it.
At least for the moment the call fell on one, and as it is now there could only be one. Mr. Zuckerberg has just finally figured out what that means exactly.
By the way, Mark, if you want to talk about it, you still have my number. Too late is fine.
Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) is the host and contributing writer of Sway, an opinion poll podcast. She reports on technology and tech companies since the dawn of the Internet.
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