Meta CEO Zuckerberg is continuing to market his new text-based app Threads with the pitch that he is “definitely focusing on kindness and making this a friendly place.” This has been picked up by an eager media as a “Twitter killer” where “Friendly Threads Collides with an Unfriendly Internet.” However, what is not discussed is what makes Threads “friendly.” Zuckerberg appears to be promising the friendly confines of a censored site. Likewise, Instagram head Adam Mosseri says that politics and hard news are not worth the “incremental engagement or revenue.” It is all part of Threads’s promise for a “sane” and “kind” alternative to Twitter where greater free speech is now allowed to run rampant. It is precisely what Facebook tried to sell years ago in a pro-censorship commercial campaign.
Below is my column in the Hill on achieving “kindness” through corporate censorship:
“Sanity” has returned to the internet.
That is the message of not only Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, but also a host of gleeful pundits heralding the arrival of the “Twitter killing” text-based app Threads — the Twitter knock-off meant to destroy Elon Musk’s platform.
This is not just a cage fight between the two billionaires. Many are more interested in whether Zuckerberg can choke out free speech than in whether he can beat Musk.
Many critics opposed Musk’s dismantling of Twitter’s massive censorship system. Zuckerberg now promises a “sane” alternative that will place consumers under the watchful eye of Meta censors.
On the first day of the rollout, millions signed up, thanks in large part to Zuckerberg linking the new platform to Instagram. The censors also got to work right away. When people tried to follow Donald Trump Jr., they were met with a warning label: “Are you sure you want to follow donaldjtrumpjr? This account has repeatedly posted false information that was reviewed by independent fact-checkers or went against our Community Guidelines.”
Later, the company backed down after an outcry. But it was a telling moment. Andy Stone, who heads communications for Meta, wrote: “This was an error and shouldn’t have happened. It’s been fixed.”
But this was clearly a pre-established warning system, to be used to flag accounts disfavored by the company. It was “an error” that would likely not have been “fixed,” if not for the objections voiced on the first day of the rollout.
The controversy itself was a warning that the company has activated its signature censorship system to influence or regulate viewpoints.
Facebook has long been accused of targeting conservatives and dissenting viewpoints. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s pitch for “sane” management seemed like an appeal to those on the left who objected to the more tolerant free speech policies on Twitter after Musk’s purchase.
While there have been controversies at Musk’s Twitter over critics being banned or posts being removed, it is a fraction of the level of censorship that has long characterized Facebook and other competitors. Indeed, most of Musk’s critics attack him for reducing the “content moderation” on Twitter.
Threads’s rollout coincides with a court ruling that the government’s interventions to censor people on social media represented “the most massive attack against free speech in United States history.” Now, Facebook is offering an alternative to Twitter, with the assurance that users will be protected against any thoughts that Meta’s staff finds problematic. While free speech on Twitter is portrayed as harmful, the company has promised to “prioritize kindness.”
That sounds eerily familiar to some of us as a way to deprioritize free speech. Recently, former Twitter executive Anika Collier Navaroli testified on how she and her staff would remove anything they considered “dog whistles” and “coded” messaging. Rather than using “kindness,” Twitter used undefined standards of “safety” to cancel free speech. Navaroli declared that they were unwilling to allow the safety of others “to go to the winds so that people can speak freely.”
Facebook has long tried to get the public to embrace its role as some kind of speech overlord. Years ago, Facebook rolled out an Orwellian commercial campaign to get the public to embrace censorship. The commercials showed young people heralding how they grew up on the internet and how the world was changing, creating a need for censorship under the guise of “content moderation.” Facebook, they promised, was offering the “blending of the real world and the internet world.”
Facebook is not alone in trying to get people to accept censorship. Recently, after the court ruling, various figures assured the public that they are better off letting corporate and government censors protect them from harmful thoughts. On CNN, Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly went so far as to state that it simply “makes sense” for tech companies to go along with government censorship demands.
After this week’s decision, the New York Times immediately issued a panicky tweet that the resulting outbreak of free speech could “curtail efforts to combat disinformation.”
For his part, Zuckerberg prefers to just offer “kindness” and “sanity” with few details. Of course, there is a very simple way for Zuckerberg to show that he is committed to free speech: He can release the Facebook Files.
One of the reasons many of us in the free-speech community still support Musk is that he transformed the debate over government censorship by releasing the Twitter Files. For years, politicians and pundits dismissed objections from some of us to government-corporate coordination of censorship as unproven. In Congress, Democratic members attacked witnesses for supposedly lacking proof of censorship, even as they fought to block any investigation that might uncover that evidence.
Musk changed all that by showing the public an extensive network of government interventions to support censorship and blacklisting of private citizens. Much of what we know today is derived from the Twitter Files, but surely there is more to learn.
When I testified in Congress on the censorship operations, I noted that, as massive as this effort has been, Twitter is only the 14th largest social media company, according to some estimates. That means that this is only a fraction of the evidence that might be out there.
Facebook is the largest platform in the world, but so far it has steadfastly refused to offer the transparency of Twitter. If Zuckerberg is truly proud of his “sane” approach to social media, he should not fear the release of information on the past coordination with federal and congressional offices.
We assume that Facebook had the same backchannels that were established at Twitter, but the company has left the public entirely in the blind. That approach has made Meta one of the least transparent companies in the world on the scope and standards of censorship.
House committees will hopefully force Facebook to disclose some of these details. However, as Zuckerberg sells a promise of the “saneness’ and “kindness” of his platforms, he should be willing to show precisely what that means for consumers — and at what cost. After all, he has appealed to many of those consumers with the promise of a censored platform.
If Zuckerberg is so proud of his “content moderation,” he should take a victory lap and release the Facebook Files.
Jonathan Turley is the J.B. & Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law George Washington University Law School.