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Where is Zuckerberg coming from?

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Timothy Egan, a columnist for the New York Times, on Saturday wrote an op-ed piece about Mark Zuckerberg, who, it’s fair to say, finds himself under fire for the way he runs Facebook.

The problem, says Egan (and I agree) is that Facebook “makes much of its money by channeling tidings of sludge around, often to great harm.” The world first learned about Facebook’s sludge-mongering in the 2016 election, when Russian intelligence services and Trump allies posted millions of fake posts about Hillary Clinton and Trump’s other political enemies. Zuckerberg’s latest scandal is that he refuses to take down patently fake posts that are mainly from Republican (and Republican-aiding foreign) operatives, under the dubious claim that he stands for free speech.

Egan correctly disputes this excuse. Many users, he explains, cannot discern between authentic information and lies that purport to be true. These lies appear, not only on Facebook’s news feed, but more often on Facebook pages, such as Breitbart’s, that are patently outrageous.

Egan says that “especially older users” are unable to tell the difference between truth and lies. He cites “a study in Science [magazine]” that found that older Americans “lack the digital smarts to distinguish made-up garbage from the truth on Facebook.”

As an older American I take umbrage at this. Older Americans may not be as digitally savvy as their grandchildren, but that doesn’t mean they’re morons. Not being able to figure out the complexities of your iPhone doesn’t mean you can’t “distinguish made-up garbage from the truth.” Indeed, a case can be made that older Americans are particularly adept at discerning truth from lies due to their vaster life experience.

Egan blew it: he’s right about Facebook’s harmful effects and he’s right about Zuckerberg’s cluelessness. But he’s wrong about the people who are most likely to fall for the crap Republican operatives put on Facebook. It’s not the elderly who believe it, it’s evangelicals and their ilk (many of whom are elderly). These are people who mistrust public education (“too liberal”) and turn to home schooling and religious schools instead. These are people who don’t read newspapers or intelligent magazines, but who get their information about Hillary Clinton and other Democrats from David Pecker’s National Enquirer. They don’t watch the news on T.V. or listen to it on the radio, unless it’s from rightwing propagandists like Fox “News” commentators, Rush Limbaugh or, more frighteningly, the Christian Broadcast Network, where a sepulchral Pat Robertson, looking like he just clawed his way out of the grave, smears Democrats, liberals and the media every day, in between suckering poor rural folks out of their money.

Egan points out that Zuckerberg, either consciously or unwittingly, “is now helping Trump’s bid for another term.” Politico (what a great outfit they are) exposed a secret meeting he had a few weeks ago with “conservative journalists…as part of his effort to cultivate friends on the right…”. The conventional wisdom is that Zuckerberg is alarmed by the talk of some liberals, including Elizabeth Warren, about breaking up big tech.

Meeting with rightwing Trump supporters doesn’t mean Zuckerberg is one of them. He may well be liberal in other respects. (For instance, he has long supported gay marriage.) But it is concerning that the head of the biggest media company in the world (one-third of our planet’s population tunes into Facebook) is protecting fake news, false claims and smears—exactly as the Russians might wish.

Surely some greater form of government regulation is called for. I don’t know if Facebook should be broken up. But something’s wrong here; Zuckerberg runs that place, and we need to have a greater understanding of his motives and, more importantly, whom he’s meeting with. We also need to keep up the pressure on him to take down those fake posts. If Zuckerberg doesn’t care that they’re a threat to America, he may care that they’re a threat to his control of Facebook. Because they are.

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