When I first read that Facebook has an employee whose title is “global head of counterterrorism policy,” I was surprised. I had always thought of counterterrorism policies as things that governments, not companies, had.
But it turns out this distinction isn’t always as meaningful as I’d thought. One job of Facebook’s global head of counterterrorism policy—a national security expert named Brian Fishman—is to do what the US government wants done. This subservience would raise questions even if we didn’t have a president with a famously reckless foreign policy. But we do, and so far Facebook seems willing to abet it.
Consider President Trump’s deeply hostile policy toward Iran. Ostensibly its goal is to change Iran’s behavior, but both National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have advocated changing its regime. And there is concern among longtime Bolton watchers that this aspiration will lead to war.
Trump’s Iran policy consists of imposing economy-crushing sanctions, coercing other nations into joining in them, and doing various other antagonistic things. One such thing came last month when the Trump administration declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. This was the first time in history that the US had slapped the terrorist label on a foreign government’s military—or for that matter on any part of a foreign government.
This development alarmed some foreign policy observers, but it didn’t give Facebook pause. The day after Trump’s move, Instagram, a Facebook property, blocked the accounts of high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officers. And the next week The New York Times reported that Fishman had said Facebook would have zero tolerance for any group the US deems a terrorist organization.
So basically Trump can tell Facebook to de-platform any part of any foreign government—including, presumably, an entire foreign government—and Fishman, along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will reply with a crisp salute? Under Facebook’s current policy, that would seem to be the case.
When I asked Fishman to justify this policy, he said it’s designed to keep Facebook on the right side of the law, which prohibits Americans from providing “material support” to any group deemed a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
But, I replied, the law goes on to spell out the things that would constitute “material support,” and none of them sound much like “letting these groups post on your social media platform.” Fishman said, “I’m not a lawyer. I’m a policy guy.” And apparently Facebook’s lawyers have advised the company to err on the side of caution. (By the way, in addition to respecting the government’s terrorist designations, Facebook has its own definition of a terrorist group, so the list of groups it bans goes beyond the government’s list of terrorist groups.)
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Of course, one way to get clarity on the law would be to not de-platform Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, see if Trump’s Justice Department tried to prosecute you, and be prepared to take the matter to court. But Fishman said Facebook has “no plans” to seek clarity via the courts.
It may seem amazing that Trump has the power to declare, in effect, that none of the 125,000 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard can have accounts on Facebook or Instagram. But that’s nothing. The Trump administration is said to be preparing to put the terrorist label on the Muslim Brotherhood, a social services and political activism network that has way more members than that in more than a dozen countries.
The heart of the Muslim Brotherhood is in Egypt. In fact, Trump’s push to deem the group terrorist came after Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, encouraged it during a White House visit last month. So, are members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood indeed, as the terrorist label would suggest, associated with the killing of innocent civilians?
Well, in the sense of being the innocent civilians who get killed. A few years ago President Sisi’s troops gunned down hundreds of them while they were peacefully demonstrating. What they were protesting was the fact that he had deposed Egypt’s democratically elected president (a Muslim Brotherhood member) in a coup.
David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times wrote last week that “even experts critical of the Brotherhood agree that the organization does not meet the criteria for a terrorist group,” and Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution has written that “there is not a single American expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who supports designating them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
When I asked Fishman about the Muslim Brotherhood, his answer gave me a bit of hope. He said that, if Trump deems the group a terrorist organization, Facebook will “assess [our policy] very carefully”—though he sounded more concerned about the practicality of enforcement than about the wisdom or legitimacy of it; he said the Brotherhood is so sprawling and amorphous as to make it “hard to understand even where the edges are.”
Maybe I shouldn’t single out Facebook for criticism. Other social media platforms do things that align uncannily with Trump’s foreign policy. Last month Google blocked two Iranian government broadcasters’ access to YouTube. And last year, the security firm FireEye (whose early investors included the CIA) identified “a suspected influence operation that appears to originate from Iran” and promotes “political narratives in line with Iranian interests”—and within hours of this announcement, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had suspended all accounts associated with the operation.
I don’t doubt that Iran’s state media, and other pro-Iran outlets that have been blocked by American social media companies, have said untrue or offensive things. But what are the chances that they say untrue or offensive things at a higher rate than President Trump? Yet I’m pretty sure Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey didn’t spend his recent sit-down with Trump threatening to de-platform him.
When major social media platforms mute the expression of the Iranian government’s perspective, it’s that much easier for the White House’s relentless anti-Iran rhetorical campaign to carry the day, and that much easier to sell regime change to America and to the world. And if the Iraq War taught us anything, it’s that turning down the volume on claims made by an adversary and its supporters—claims such as, “really, we don’t have weapons of mass destruction, which is why international inspectors haven’t found any!”—can come at a high cost.
Eerily, we now—as during the run-up to the Iraq War—have an administration saying misleading things about an adversary. John Bolton said this year that “Iran continues to seek nuclear weapons.” There is zero evidence for this claim, and there is considerable evidence against it. Because Iran has continued to comply with the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, its nuclear energy processing plants are subject to an extremely strict monitoring and inspections regime; there’s basically no way these plants could be producing weapons-grade material without us knowing it.
This isn’t the first time there’s been cause to doubt Bolton’s ability to assess evidence. In 2002 he said, “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq.”
There have always been times, certainly including the run-up to wars, when national media companies, for better or worse, did the bidding of the American government. (Google “Judith Miller, New York Times, Iraq War.”) But Facebook, Twitter, and Google, though American companies, aren’t national. Their content is published internationally and originates internationally; they are global discourse platforms. If the Iraq War fiasco is any guide, it would be in America’s interest for them to start acting like it.