Will Zuckerberg’s ‘Supreme Court’ be as anti-science as his rightwing ‘fact-checkers’?

Facebook CEO misunderstands misinformation so badly, he won't block Holocaust deniers

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a tech conference on September 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a tech conference on September 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a new plan to solve the collapse in confidence surrounding Facebook’s inability to police its own content. The only problem is it probably won’t work.

Widely criticized for letting Facebook become a home to hate speech, fake news, and misinformation, Zuckerberg wants to pass the buck to a so-called “Supreme Court” that will somehow make and enforce the tough decisions that he himself is unwilling to make.

But how could such a group solve the problem given that Zuckerberg himself has previously chosen right-wing groups who deny climate science to “fact check” his site and to police it for bias?

Indeed, as the New York Times reported last week, Facebook actually hired a GOP-linked PR firm to attack the company’s critics and competitors — and it ended up smearing George Soros with anti-Semitic tropes and dogwhistles.

Zuckerberg first floated his oversight idea back in an April interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, “You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech in a community that reflects the social norms and values of people all around the world.”


Then, last Thursday, Zuckerberg posted on Facebook, “A Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement,” which says that such a body will be created over the next year to be both independent and transparent.

But independence and transparency haven’t stopped the U.S. Supreme Court itself from becoming so politicized that it doesn’t make any tough decisions based on the facts.

The Court’s votes are strictly party line and ideological now, such as its absurd 2016 decision to suspend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a modest and flexible plan to cut carbon pollution. After all, the CPP was a mandatory response to the Supreme Court’s own 2007 ruling that CO2 is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and thus must be regulated after it was determined to be a danger to human health and well-being, which the science has proved again and again.

And the Supreme Court is poised to become even more anti-science given that its newest Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, has an “aversion to all science-based regulations,” as one leading expert explained to ThinkProgress in July.


But how exactly is Zuckerberg going to keep climate science deniers off his “Supreme Court” when he won’t keep them off his own list of fact-checkers and advisers?

Indeed, on Sunday, Fortune magazine wrote a piece suggesting “5 Top Candidates” for Facebook’s Supreme Court, and one of them was actually tech billionaire and adviser to President Donald Trump, Peter Thiel. Thiel has said climate change is “groupthink” and “misdiagnosed” — and that maybe “the real problem is eating steak.”

Perhaps Zuckerberg’s plan to outsource the tough decisions will help, but it won’t deal with the root source of the problem, which is Zuckerberg’s own refusal to deal with misinformation.

Back in July, Zuckerberg got in trouble for saying Facebook wouldn’t explicitly ban Holocaust denial. In clarifying his remarks, he said (emphasis added):

Our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue — but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services. If something is spreading and is rated false by fact checkers, it would lose the vast majority of its distribution in News Feed. And of course if a post crossed line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed. These issues are very challenging but I believe that often the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech.

This has two fatal flaws. First, as discussed, Facebook’s fact-checkers include climate science deniers who themselves spread misinformation.

Second, the social science literature is quite clear that the best way to fight fake news is, firstly, don’t expose people to it at all. And secondly, if you insist on exposing readers to lies, then you need to keep the lies to a minimum while repeatedly exposing them to the truth.


On Thursday, Zuckerberg once again revealed his blinkered myopia when he wrote, “the most effective way to stop the spread of misinformation is to remove the fake accounts that generate it. The next most effective strategy is reducing its distribution and virality. ”

The problem with misinformation like climate science denial is not the fake accounts that spread it — it is the real right-wing media outlets and think tanks (and politicians like Trump) who spread it. But these are the very groups Zuckerberg has chosen to work with as fact and bias checkers, who will determine distribution and virality.

Sadly, no social media Supreme Court can save Zuckerberg from himself.