The dispute over how to deal with Trump’s posts is forcing the Facebook boss to show his colors. And the debate reveals how much the US President relies on Zuckerberg’s quasi-monopoly.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg likes to speak of the “fifth violence”. His network reflects the voice of the people, a necessary addition to the classic four powers: government, parliament, courts and media. People can argue, organize, fight for goals via the virtual megaphones Facebook, Twitter and Co. But the conflict between US President Donald Trump and the social media companies shows how much Facebook itself has become a power factor. The triggers are posts in which Trump further fueled the mood after the killing of African-American George Floyd. The tensions in the United States are now forcing Zuckerberg to take a political stand. This does not actually occur in the operating system of the group, which operates under the banner of freedom of expression.
Competitors Twitter and Snapchat have restricted Trump’s visibility after he has crossed the limits of decency several times. Now Zuckerberg is also examining whether Facebook should intervene in the face of threats of violence and racism from politicians. For a long time he showed a remarkable fear of angering America’s rights. Now the pressure from our own ranks is increasing. Hundreds of employees no longer want the president to use their platform for his escalation strategy.
Trump in turn wants to prevent companies from repositioning themselves. He threatens to take away their most important privilege: “Section 230”, part of a law from the time when modems beeped loudly. It largely frees companies from liability for their users’ contributions – in contrast to traditional media, which assume responsibility for content. An end to the privilege would endanger Zuckerberg’s business model. His company would have to delete millions of posts on suspicion, which would plunge him into new censorship debates. If Zuckerberg becomes the global editor-in-chief, this makes him even more powerful – and even more vulnerable.
In this struggle, Trump is under even more pressure than Zuckerberg. The vehemence with which the president wants to intimidate social media reveals how much his fate is linked to Facebook’s quasi-monopoly structure. The anti-politician and his form of schoolyard bullying will not work without Facebook. In 2016 he maneuvered the republican elite, whom he was too vulgar, like the Democrats around Hillary Clinton with an unprecedented network offensive. The network’s ad system, which shows users ads based on their interests, is at the heart of their campaign. “Flood the zone with shit” was what his ex-advisor Steve Bannon called the plan to drown Clinton’s campaign in unrestrained digital propaganda. Trump wants to force Facebook to keep the locks as open as possible.
Zuckerberg likes to take the advertising money, but otherwise wants to have as little to do with politics. Now his own people are forcing him to do so. Internally, one of them wrote of an “abusive relationship” between Facebook and the president. Zuckerberg has to consider whether he wants to break away from this relationship. To do this, he must acknowledge that it is not his users, but himself that has become the “fifth power”.