Dissatisfaction with the way social media companies are handling political content has been a big topic in the news lately, with most of the heat here in the U.S. being focused on Facebook and Twitter. But it’s not just Congress or the general public calling for social media companies to reform the way they handle political speech, it’s also big-time public figures. The latest household name to join the fray is Hollywood icon Aaron Sorkin, who’s just penned an open letter directly addressed to Mark Zuckerberg calling for the Facebook CEO to eliminate political disinformation on his platform.
The letter, which was published in the opinion section of The New York Times, begins by addressing Zuckerberg simply as “Mark,” and then gives a brief bit of context for how Sorkin and Zuckerberg have a bit of shared history. The extraordinarily prolific Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men and created The West Wing (among many other movies, shows, and plays), talks specifically about the movie, The Social Network, which was released in theaters in 2010. Sorkin wrote the film, which was based on the founding of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s part in it, and as he notes in his op-ed, caught a lot of flack for it from the company and its CEO.
“This can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together,” writes Aaron Sorkin in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg https://t.co/5Gx4kNLJkj
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 31, 2019
While The Social Network is discussed prominently in the column, the real meat of the piece is a criticism of Zuckerberg’s allowance of “Facebook’s practice of posting demonstrably false ads from political candidates,” as well as the “crazy lies pumped into the water supply [by Facebook] that corrupt the most important decisions we make together.”
These specific criticisms from Sorkin are a reference to Facebook’s policy toward political ads that was broadly laid out by Zuckerberg during his recent testimony before Congress. Although Zuckerberg’s explanation of Facebook’s political ads policy during his testimony was considered ambiguous by many people, including the congresspeople themselves, the company did clarify its policy in a letter to the Associated Press.
I say this as a candidate that runs digital ads & believe they can be productive + useful *IF* used responsibly.
People say that tech companies can’t fact check, but basic fact checking isn’t hard. We‘re talking abt blocking outright disinformation: wrong vote records, etc.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) October 30, 2019
The letter to the Associated Press noted that “In a democracy, people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” and that “[This is] why – like other internet platforms and broadcasters – we don’t fact check ads from politicians.” (Note that this isn’t accurate anymore, as Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, recently announced that the microblogging site will no longer allow political ads on its platform as of November 22 of this year.)
In response to this policy, Sorkin’s letter notes that “Lies [in the political realm] have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.” He adds that this laissez faire strategy for handling political disinformation couldn’t possibly result in an outcome he nor Zuckerberg desires.
.@facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says “we are at a crossroads, we can either continue to stand for free expression, or we can decide that the cost is simply too great. I am here today because I believe that we should continue to stand for free expression.” pic.twitter.com/Q1xQxs11w9
— Georgetown Politics (@GUPolitics) October 17, 2019
The thrust of Sorkin’s piece is summed up when he says that “You and I want speech protections to make sure no one gets imprisoned or killed for saying or writing something unpopular, not to ensure that lies have unfettered access to the American electorate.”
Zuckerberg has responded to Sorkin’s open letter by quoting the writer’s own words from his 1995 film, The American President. The quote, which comes via Deadline, reads, in full, as follows:
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say: You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
What do you think of Sorkin’s open letter to Facebook’s CEO? Do you think Zuckerberg’s stance on free speech in regards to demonstrably false political claims makes sense? Exercise your First Amendment rights in the comments below!
Feature image: Yahoo Finance