In the past few weeks, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has raised the ire of liberal and environmentalist groups for a series of ads released by his new political organization Fwd.Us. The ads, which advocate for the Keystone XL pipeline and other conservative-friendly measures, have convinced MoveOn.org, Sierra Club, Daily Kos and others to pull their own advertising from Facebook’s site. Furthermore, activists have taken to Facebook itself to protest the actions of Zuckerberg and Fwd.Us. A new Facebook Group called HeyZuck was launched to put pressure on the man himself on his home court, and the page has received nearly 20,000 Likes so far. On the other hand, a group called CREDO Action had its anti-Zuckerberg ads blocked by Facebook, purportedly because it violated the site’s policy of using Zuckerberg’s likeness without permission.
This story hasn’t been getting much attention lately, but it’s quite fascinating from a social media and politics perspective. The very fact that a social media platform can be used to speak out against the CEO of that very same platform says something fairly profound about the democratizing potential of Web 2.0. In terms of media history, such a development is unprecedented – imagine activists using the pages of one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers (or the airwaves of FOX News) to protest his political donations and lobbying efforts. While Facebook may be blocking certain ads (like CREDO’s) for political reasons, they have not clamped down on the use of the site for political speech that puts its founder in a negative light.
It is important to remember, however, that Facebook can potentially take down a page like HeyZuck if they wanted to – the fact that they haven’t probably says more about their brand reputation management than anything else. As Felix Stalder reminds us in his contribution to the NYU Press Social Media Reader, the so-called ‘back-end’ of the web is becoming increasingly important in questions of digital democracy. While we may like to think that participatory platforms like Facebook and Twitter are true free-for-alls where anyone can say and do whatever they wish (for political purposes or otherwise), these platforms are in fact controlled by for-profit corporations that operate with their own political agendas. When we use these platforms for political speech, we are taking the risk of leaving our voices at the mercy of a commercial entity that may or may not like what we have to say. While it is encouraging in a sense that the HeyZuck Facebook page has been thriving on the site, I have to wonder whether such an arrangement will continue to be viable as Silicon Valley entities become more and more significant political players (which the very formation of Zuckerberg’s Fwd.Us underlines). For now, we can remain tentatively optimistic that these platforms allow more opportunities for dissent than was previously possible in earlier media regimes.