“The Authenticity Trap; Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook’s problems can be fixed with “authentic” speech. He’s so wrong.”

Sarah Haan in Slate:

In his speech on “free expression” Thursday at Georgetown University, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made an important assertion: Facebook has found that its “best” speech-regulating strategy is “focusing on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself.”

Zuckerberg went on to describe the Russian content that roiled his platform in 2016 as “distasteful,” implying that it was mostly unobjectionable. The “real issue,” he said, was that the Internet Research Agency’s ads were “posted by fake accounts coordinating together and pretending to be someone else.” But the “real issue” with foreign election interference isn’t disguised identities or coordinated activity by foreign accounts. It’s the foreign interference that’s harmful, not a misrepresentation about who’s running the account.

The Russian interference example, which Zuckerberg and his executives have cited again and again, highlights the company’s efforts to justify and normalize what I call “authenticity regulation”: Facebook’s evolving set of policies designed to verify that you are who you say you are, by collecting all sorts of identifying information about you and monitoring your online (and offline) behavior.

The article builds on Sarah’s forthcoming law review article, Bad Actors: Authenticity, Inauthenticity, Speech and Capitalism. Here is the abstract:

“Authenticity” has evolved into an important “value” that guides social media companies’ regulation of online speech. It is enforced through rules and practices that include real-name policies, Terms of Service requiring users to present only accurate information about themselves, community guidelines that prohibit “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” verification practices, product features, and more. What accounts for the rise of authenticity? This Article critically examines authenticity regulation by the social media industry, including companies’ claims that authenticity is a moral virtue, an expressive value, and a pragmatic necessity. It explains how companies engaged in “information capitalism,” “data capitalism,” and “surveillance capitalism” derive economic value from authenticity regulation. It also explores how a regulatory focus on authenticity shapes our views about objectionable speech, upends traditional commitments to pseudonymous political expression, and encourages collaboration between the State and private companies. The Article concludes that “authenticity,” as conceptualized by the industry, is not an important value on par with privacy or dignity, but that it offers business value and many of the same opportunities for viewpoint discrimination that garden-variety content moderation does.


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