How best to describe the relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump? To borrow a handy Facebook metaphor: It’s complicated.
One of tech’s most-powerful kingpins — perhaps also one of the least-cynical people I know in Silicon Valley — has been consistently played by the undisputed champion of internet trolls, who operates on the simple principle that there is a sucker born every minute. In this case, that sucker has been Mr. Zuckerberg, who seems to have only now decided that perhaps Mr. Trump is not committed to doing his best to elevate the conversation and, may even be trying to blast it all to smithereens.
On Friday, Mr. Zuckerberg finally dropped the hammer and declared that the former president would be barred from Facebook for at least two years — a lesser sentence than that handed down by Twitter, which has ejected him permanently. Facebook did, however, say that it would let Mr. Trump return only “if the risk to public safety has receded.”
Fat chance of that if you’ve seen how insistently and persistently Mr. Trump has continued to huff and puff on his sousaphone of lies. This has been his modus operandi since the minute he applied his thumbs to a mobile phone keyboard way back when — behavior that has gotten only scarier and more dangerous over time. That’s why it has not been easy to imagine that an often canny, prescient entrepreneur like Mr. Zuckerberg has been played for a chump by Mr. Trump.
But anyone who has spent a small amount of time with Mr. Zuckerberg, uncomfortable with his immense power, agonizes deeply about his every step. In my innumerable conversations with him over many years — often late at night over a phone, giving them the feel of a college-dorm jaw session — he maintained that he trusted Facebook’s larger community to clean out the vile, often-toxic dreck that flowed over his ever-larger platform.
Mr. Zuckerberg believes in the perfectibility of man. I have studied the use of propaganda in Nazi Germany and during China’s Cultural Revolution. I told him that there is no low that some people will not sink to if it is in their interests to do so.
Once, when Mr. Zuckerberg was still talking to me, we argued about some much-less-serious violation of rules on Facebook, issues that now seem quaint in comparison. Trying to lighten the mood, I invoked the old journalism bromide: He should trust, yes, but always verify.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it,” I said to him, trying to convince him that he could not rely on the community or algorithms or anything else but his own decision making when push from bad actors inevitably came to shove.
He did not get the joke at all. He also missed my larger point that the world was an ugly place and that he had handed some very bad people in it a potent weapon of destruction. They would take advantage of his belief that the truth will always out.
Even now, I have a hard time describing the blank stare on his typically blank face. It was as if I was talking in another language to another species on another planet.
I guess I should not have been surprised, since Mr. Zuckerberg never seems to be motivated by base instinct — unlike, say, Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, his polar opposite in tech. Mr. Zuckerberg is the superego to Mr. Musk’s id. One took an agonizingly long time — a potentially harmful long time — to make an obvious decision. The other tweets recklessly — and possibly illegally — and sends the value of cryptocurrency flying up and down like a roller coaster.
At some point, the government can easily deal with Mr. Musk’s possible S.E.C. violation. But no one can turn the clock back on what Mr. Zuckerberg has wrought by indulging Mr. Trump, who never met a Facebook regulation he did not desecrate. The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 should have been no surprise to anyone who was connecting the dots, which Mr. Zuckerberg stubbornly declined to do until now.
What does this mean for how we view free speech? On the one hand, there are rules of the road for every other industry and if Mr. Trump consistently and purposefully crashes his clown car, he should pay the price. To deem his punishment censorship — even though it is on a private platform that is not the public square — is exactly what he cynically hopes we will do.
But on the other, it’s obvious we need to discuss whether the decision to live or die online should be in the hands of a corporate executive with no accountability to speak of — all part of a bigger conversation about consolidation of power and what we’re going to do to diminish it.
For now at least, the call has fallen to one and, the way things are now, there could be only one. Mr. Zuckerberg just finally found out exactly what that means.
By the way, Mark, if you want to talk about it, you still have my number. Late is fine.
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