Jill Lepore is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard University. Her most recent book is These Truths: A History of the United States, which is a finalist for the Cundill History Prize.
Last month, in six hours of testimony before Congress, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg relieved himself and his company of any obligation to the nature and character of political speech in the United States and around the world. This is not a new position for Facebook. This is the only position Facebook has ever had.
From the start, Facebook has denied that its business has anything to do with journalism. “Facebook is not a traditional media company,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in 2016, 10 years after launching Facebook News Feed, absolving the company of responsibility for verifying any of that news.
“It is not clear to me that with 1.8 billion people in the world in lots of different countries, with lots of different languages, that the smart strategy is to start hiring editors,” Facebook’s then-director of global communications said in a forum about the role of the press in the last U.S. presidential election, admitting that the company had only ever begun to ponder the problem of fake news some time in 2015.
Before Congress last month, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook isn’t a political advertising firm, either, and therefore free of any responsibility to abide by the rules of political advertising set by the Federal Election Commission, even though it expects to sell nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of political advertising in the coming U.S. presidential election year.
“I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad,” Mr. Zuckerberg told members of Congress. “That’s different from it being in our position the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.” Facebook’s position is, and always has been, “it’s up to the viewer.”
During earlier eras of innovation in technologies of communication, Americans took these obligations more seriously. In 1923, the founders of Time magazine, the first weekly newsmagazine, intended their venture to serve as a record of events “accurately chronicled,” an antidote to the manipulation of the masses through the new medium of mass advertising. Time – which was originally to be called Facts – established the first fact-checking department, a team of researchers “charged with checking and verifying every word” that appeared in the magazine. Four years later, Congress passed the Radio Act, establishing regulations for the new medium of radio that included a provision requiring broadcasters to give political candidates equal time to present their views to the public.
Journalists and legislatures worked hard to ensure standards of fairness and accuracy in political communication. So, too, did scholars and scientists, especially in the 1930s, with fascism on the rise in Europe. In 1937, a group of prominent intellectuals including Columbia historian Charles Beard and Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril founded the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, “to assist the public in detecting and analyzing propaganda.” They warned, “America is beset by a confusion of conflicting propagandas, a Babel of voices, warnings, charges, counter-charges, assertions, and contradictions assailing us continually through press, radio, and newsreel.” It wasn’t enough to say, “it’s up to the public,” they thought. They figured the public needed a few tools to work with and provided guidelines for how to teach schoolchildren or citizens’ groups how to tell piffle from pith. Tools such as a list of seven common ways propaganda works, including name calling, "a device to make us form a judgment without examining the evidence on which it should be based.”
During the Second World War, the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, helped establish an Office of Facts and Figures dedicated to what he called “the strategy of truth.” Fascism worked by way of the “strategy of terror.” Democracies follow different rules.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, decades marked by prosperity, gains in civil rights, low political polarization and low income inequality, American political discourse abided by these commitments, and more, including the Fairness Doctrine, established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949. All was not always well, of course. Politicians lied. Newspapers got stories wrong. Some Americans willfully deceived other Americans, without consequence.
Mr. Zuckerberg was born in 1984. Three years later, the deregulatory Reagan administration abolished the Fairness Doctrine (the president vetoed a congressional effort to block the repeal). In 1996, when Mr. Zuckerberg was 12, Congress passed a Telecommunications Act that untethered the emerging internet from any earlier set of obligations to truth, accuracy and fairness. It has been adrift ever since.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.