fb-pixelMark Zuckerberg is right about free speech and the Web - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Mark Zuckerberg is right about free speech and the Web

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke last week at Georgetown University in a “Conversation on Free Expression" in Washington.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

An unusual thing happened last week. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, gave a speech with which I mostly agreed. Regular readers of this column will know that I have frequently criticized Zuckerberg. My book “The Square and the Tower” contains some harsh words about his company — and particularly its conduct in the fateful election year of 2016.

However, speaking at Georgetown University last week, the Facebook founder took a stance on the issue of free speech that pleasantly surprised me.

First, he got his history right. “Giving everyone a voice,” he argued, “empowers the powerless” — whereas “the most repressive societies have always restricted speech the most.” Correct.


Second, Zuckerberg recognized that the Internet has fundamentally transformed the public sphere. We are no longer in the old world of newspapers, radio, and television. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”

I like the coinage of the Fifth Estate. In case you’ve lost track of those pre-French Revolution categories, the First Estate is — or was — the clergy, the second the nobility, and the third the middle class. The Fourth Estate, the press, came later and should now be called old media.

But the third and most important point of Zuckerberg’s Georgetown speech was a trenchant defense of free speech. Facebook, said Zuckerberg, will “continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us.”

At a time when, not least in universities, there are ever-louder demands to prohibit “hate speech,” Zuckerberg’s opposition to the “ever-expanding definition of what speech is harmful” and his pledge to “fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible” are very welcome. Amen! No trigger warnings. No safe spaces.


It is also refreshing to hear this affirmation of free speech at a time when the Chinese government is so clearly demonstrating the link between authoritarianism and censorship. It has been easy to criticize the National Basketball Association for its craven repudiation of the manager of the Houston Rockets, who had expressed his support for the Hong Kong protesters. My friends, that is the price of doing business in China. You either play by the Communist Party’s rules or you exit the Chinese market.

As Zuckerberg said in an interview last week, there is now a clear contest on the Internet between “American companies and platforms with strong free expression values” and their Chinese rivals, who will censor whatever the government Beijing tells them to. Right again.

The test of your commitment to free speech is how far you are prepared to tolerate not just views you disagree with —“hate speech”— but views that are downright mendacious — fake speech. Last month, Facebook unveiled a new policy not to moderate politicians’ speech or fact-check their political ads. The policy was swiftly put to the test when the Trump campaign released a 30-second video ad accusing Joe Biden of corrupt conduct in Ukraine. When Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to take down the ad, the company refused. Elizabeth Warren — Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination — countered by creating a fake ad of her own that claimed Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump.


Warren has called Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit machine.” But, like her European counterparts, she fails to see that, in asking Facebook to decide which political ads air and which do not, she is implicitly ceding far more power to the company than it wants or should have.

Yet there is a price tag associated with a free-speech Facebook, and we should not ignore it. The 2020 presidential election will be only the third in which the Internet has been the decisive battleground. And it will matter even more in 2020 than it did in 2016, when it mattered more than it did in 2012.

Last week, I noted — on the basis not just of opinion polls but also of prediction markets — that Elizabeth Warren had a serious chance of becoming President. But this week I want to argue that, if you factor in social media, she will probably lose to Donald Trump. The reason is that Brad Parscale’s digital campaign for Trump is already miles ahead.

According to data for the year up to Sept. 19, published by The New York Times last week, the Trump campaign has spent $15.9 million on Facebook and Google ads, more than the total spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined. While the Democrats do old-school things like debating on cable TV, Parscale and his team are aggregating the Mobile Advertising IDs (MAIDs) of the entire voting population, matching location data from phone usage to other information they have.


In “The Square and the Tower,” I argued that Facebook — not Russia — was the crucial factor in the 2016 election. Facebook — and Google, too — will matter even more next year. One side fully understands that, and it is not the Democrats. Mark Zuckerberg is right: It is not his job to come between Brad Parscale and Facebook users. But we should all clearly understand what this means: It very likely means a second Trump term.

The Fifth Estate has indeed empowered the powerless. But not only them.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @nfergus.