yesIssie LapowskyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Politics

The other reason Facebook silenced Trump? Republicans just lost their power.

Yes, the president's acts were unprecedented. But Facebook is also preparing for a new Washington, controlled by Democrats.

Mark Zuckerberg, Joel Kaplan and Andy Stone walking down a hall

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook's head of public policy Joel Kaplan have spent four years bending to conservatives' demands. Now, Facebook is bending in a new direction.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In his post announcing that President Trump would be blocked from posting on Facebook until at least Inauguration Day, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the president's incitement of the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday was "fundamentally different" than any of the offenses he's committed on Facebook before. "The risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great," he wrote on Thursday.

That may be true. But there's another reason why — after four years spent insisting that a tech company has no business shutting up the president of the United States, no matter how much he threatens to shoot protesters or engages in voter suppression — Zuckerberg finally had a change of heart: Republicans just lost power.

Since at least 2016, when conservatives first set off on their crusade against Big Tech, armed with spurious claims of liberal bias, Facebook's leaders have cowered in fear of the right. That year, after Gizmodo reported that Facebook had kept some conservative news out of its trending topics feature, Zuckerberg invited a ragtag delegation of conservative pundits including Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson to Facebook's headquarters to extend an olive branch.

From that day forward, Facebook has repeatedly sought to avoid the right's ire, elevating Joel Kaplan, a former George W. Bush staffer and himself a Brooks Brothers rioter, to the company's highest public policy position to navigate a Washington that was no longer starry-eyed about Silicon Valley. During Trump's tenure and under a Republican-controlled Congress, Facebook refused to prohibit white nationalist content and conspiracy theories like QAnon, shelved plans to promote healthier political dialogue for fear it would stoke Republican outrage and lavished special treatment on far-right pages that repeatedly violated its policies. All the while, conservative voices dominated the site in the U.S.

None of it helped, of course. Zuckerberg was still regularly excoriated by Republican members of the House and Senate in public hearings over imagined slights and asked to explain again and again why a given political ad had been taken down or why Diamond and Silk's Facebook traffic was falling. In those moments, Zuckerberg would steel himself and politely vow to look into the matter, bending over backward to prove he was taking each bad faith argument to heart.

But, now that the people of Georgia have spoken, Democrats are about to assume control of both the White House and the Senate. So it stands to reason then that Zuckerberg is beginning to bend in a new direction.

That fact didn't go unnoticed by some on the left, like former White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri, who tweeted Thursday, "It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump's destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them."

"Most big content moderation decisions are a reaction to policymakers, negative press coverage or advertisers, and we're seeing that play out this week," said Nu Wexler, a former policy spokesperson for Facebook.

That's not to say Zuckerberg was wrong or lying about the unprecedented and dangerous nature of Trump's actions on Wednesday. Facebook has historically avoided touching his posts, in part out of respect for the office of president and the significance that the president's words are supposed to hold in this democracy. But as Trump used the platform to express his love and understanding for the Capitol rioters and again repeat the baseless claims that sent them to the Capitol in the first place, he shattered the last democratic norm that Facebook was supposedly protecting. In muzzling Trump for the rest of his presidency and possibly beyond, Facebook has taken stronger action than either Twitter or YouTube have so far, though both companies have removed some Trump posts and warned that the president risks permanent bans if he commits more violations in the future.

That's the generous read on Facebook's actions, at least. Another read reveals more cynical motives. Unlike Republicans on the Hill, who have fixated on how they and their conservative constituents are supposedly silenced, Democrats have spent the last four years fixated on how real-world harm manifests from Facebook's decision not to silence people more. But with the possible exceptions of the shooting at a Congressional baseball game in 2017 and the mail bombing attempts by the so-called MAGA bomber in 2018, rarely have the real-world repercussions of allowing people to become radicalized by lies online hit as close to Congress' home as they did on Wednesday.

Facebook's leaders, including Zuckerberg, know Washington well enough by now to expect this week's chaos to become Democrats' animating issue for the foreseeable future. "The Mazie Hironos of the world are definitely going to call for hearings on online harms, and they should," said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which researches disinformation online. "But now, it's gonna be like: 'Your platform coordinated an attempt on my life. What do you have to say?'"

And in those moments, Zuckerberg will steel himself once more and politely list all the steps Facebook has taken since that awful day to try to control the chaos, including, at least temporarily, banning Trump. Republicans will rant, as Democrats have done so often these last four years, about how the party holding the gavel is trying to force Facebook's hand and cow the company into carrying out their wishes. But without control of Congress or the White House, Republicans won't be able to do much about it. So Zuckerberg will hope instead that, at least in the eyes of the new people in power, these actions will help make up for the last four years. And he will almost certainly be wrong.

Big Tech benefits from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

Is this the future of the FTC?

In conversation with Protocol, Commissioner Becca Slaughter, whose name has been floated as a possible FTC chair, laid out her priorities for the next four years.

FTC commissioner Becca Slaughter may be President Biden's pick for FTC chair.

Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter, a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, made a name for herself last year when she famously breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

But lately, Slaughter's name has been circulating for other reasons: She's a likely candidate to be President Joe Biden's pick for FTC chair, an appointment that would put Slaughter at the head of antitrust investigations into tech giants, including Facebook.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.

Meet the new tech bureaucracy

As Joe Biden takes the oath of office, here are the nominees who will loom large in the lives of tech companies and the people who work for them

Here are the nominees who are most likely to wield power over the tech industry.

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tech billionaires and the people who work for them overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden's election in November. Now, as he takes the oath of office and becomes the 46th president of the United States, the real work begins.

For the tech industry, that means working with or battling a new administration over everything from antitrust to workforce labor issues. While Biden will undoubtedly set the agenda, the work itself will be carried out by the new heads of federal agencies and the rank-and-file bureaucrats working underneath them.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

People

Expensify CEO: ‘Most CEOs are not bad people, they're just cowards’

"Remember that one time when we almost had civil war? What did you do about it?"

Expensify CEO David Barrett has thoughts on what it means for tech CEOs to claim they act apolitically.

Photo: Expensify

The Trump presidency ends tomorrow. It's a political change in which Expensify founder and CEO David Barrett played a brief, but explosive role.

Barrett became famous last fall — or infamous, depending on whom you ask — for sending an email to the fintech startup's clients, urging them to reject Trump and support President-elect Joe Biden.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Politics

'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Latest Stories