The same week Uber was given notice in London, Mark Zuckerberg sat down in front of a camera in Menlo Park, Calif. His desaturated earth-tone palette was matched color for color by his office in the background, as if to provide camouflage. Indeed, it was easy to miss the sheer range and strangeness of what he was there to say. “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” he said. “The integrity of our elections is fundamental to democracy around the world.”
Facebook had recently disclosed that it believed Russian state actors purchased political ads during the 2016 election; more broadly, it had been accused of allowing disinformation and misinformation to thrive on its platform. Among the measures that Zuckerberg said his company would take included expanding “partnerships” with election commissions around the world and “working proactively to strengthen the democratic process.” Most striking, coming from the C.E.O. of a publicly traded American social-media company, was this line: “We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend.”
Social-media companies aren’t new to defending themselves in ideological terms — they’re just not used to doing it on their home turf. While to authoritarian regimes, the threat of social media is obvious, in the United States, Facebook, Twitter and Google have for years talked about themselves freely in the language of democracy, participation and connectivity. The emerging tension between internet platforms and democratic governments, however, seems to stem less from their obvious rhetorical differences than from their similarities.
Facebook’s transition from a confident stride to a guarded crouch was conspicuous and sudden, arriving roughly at the same time as President Trump. Shortly after the 2016 election, Zuckerberg dismissed heated claims that misinformation on his platform had gotten Trump elected as a “pretty crazy idea.” In September, he admitted that his comment was dismissive, but did so after months of near-constant scrutiny, including, according to The Washington Post, a postelection lecture from President Obama. In an interview with Bloomberg published in September, he sounded more wistful than irritated: “For most of the existence of the company, this idea of connecting the world has not been a controversial thing,” he said. “Something changed.” It certainly had: Facebook was being implicated as potentially harmful to the systems within which it had thrived, and with which it had sought to identify itself.
The problem was that Facebook had outgrown every context except its own. Though it neither thinks like nor resembles a government, it has effectively sewn itself into the fabric of users’ public and personal lives. Facebook accounts have now become something like IDs, enabling an ever-growing range of activities: commerce, job-seeking, leisure. Networks stand in for community; encryption, in owned and operated services like WhatsApp, stands in for guarantees of liberty; newsfeeds become sources of diverse information, including ads, yes, but also calls to register to vote — to apply elsewhere what you’ve increasingly experienced online.
All this is to say that a sufficiently successful social platform is experienced, much like Uber, as a piece of infrastructure. Except, instead of wrapping its marketplace around a city’s roads, Facebook makes a new market around communication, media and civil society. This, from a founder’s perspective, is an electrifying outcome. But this cultural metastasis has led to a swift and less-than-discriminate backlash. Already, calls for regulating the largest internet platforms are growing louder while remaining tellingly vague. After all, what can a government realistically do about a problem like Facebook?
It’s very likely that any approach to regulating Facebook will look more like diplomacy than anything else — a cautious search for détente with an institution that ultimately gets to set its own laws, whether a government likes it or not. Indeed, the company has been presenting itself as a willing, generous participant in American investigations, but more generally as a supranational, self-regulating force for good, and, boldly, as indispensable for the continuation of democracy around the world. “We will do our part not only to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world,” Zuckerberg said, “but also to give everyone a voice and to be a force for good in democracy everywhere.” For citizen users, it’s a gesture of good faith. To skeptical countries, it’s a gentle declaration of independence, or maybe a dare. For Facebook, it’s something distinct, new and unmistakably statelike: a claim of sovereignty.