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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Speech Versus Reach; Voice Versus Virtue

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University

Ann Mongoven

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Ann Mongoven is the associate director of health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Georgetown speech glowingly invoked the power of free expression, and portrayed Facebook as a great democratizer. Zuckerberg claimed that by refusing to restrict political ads, even for intentional lies, Facebook plays an important civic role. He portrayed Facebook’s general reluctance to monitor content (except for the most directly violence-inducing) as a courageous stance that deflects autocratic tendencies. He acknowledged his expectation that the democratizing benefits of Facebook’s policies will accrue non-linearly over time. But he exuded optimism that they will put Facebook on the right side of history.

The problem with his rhetoric is not only the erasure of what falls outside his imagined best-fitting line on the social media data-curve. (Are we really to dismiss as negligible outliers the evolving list of assaults against democracy committed through Facebook: Russian interference in U.S. and European elections; genocide against the Rohinga; livestreamed mass-shootings; and fake news about public health?) Equally problematic are two false equations: mistaking speech for reach, and voice for virtue.[1]

These wrongful conflations underlie the great irony of Facebook. Some would argue, we are being torn apart by a global company whose mission is to bring people together. But if Facebook and its users chose to remove blinders and attend the differences between speech and reach, voice and virtue, Facebook could become a truer force for democracy. And not by increasing censorship on the web.

Zuckerberg emphasizes how open access to Facebook’s platform can enable the marginalized. Clearly sometimes it has. Clearly sometimes it has done the opposite. Facebook’s algorithms can amplify differences in the original political or socioeconomic power of those who use the platform, with polarizing results. Facebook capitalizes financially on advertising, user-tailored news, data-mining, and algorithms that reward quantity of hits rather than quality, truth, or coherence of a post. By design, Facebook’s business model poses a conflict of interest to its self-appointed role as guardian of pure voice.

Open access is not equal access. Free speech is not the same as free reach. Blurring the concepts of speech and reach allows Facebook to deflect attention from its intrinsic conflicts of interest

Facebook’s self-interested ode to “voice” also misses that voice is not sufficient for robust political discourse. The public needs more than free space for anyone to shout anything they want if it is to discern facts, identify tradeoffs among multiple goods, and develop cross-cutting consensus. It needs civically virtuous citizens. Facebook’s relentless algorithmic corralling of users tends to erode these virtues.

According to Aristotle’s classic definition, a virtue is an intentional habit, cultivated and practiced so consistently that it becomes a settled character trait. Democracy requires citizens with civic virtues that enable them to:

  • listen actively, even to views that initially surprise them;
  • translate conceptually amidst different rhetorical languages;
  • speak in terms accessible to others;
  • recognize storytelling, not just formal argumentation, as a form of political discourse;
  • identify common goods and intrinsic tradeoffs; and
  • develop community processes to pursue public goods and negotiate tradeoffs.

Democracy in pluralistic settings requires ongoing, always fragile, construction of common identity. A crucial avenue for such identity-construction is participation in constructive political discourse. Shared commitment to the discourse can bind a community even amidst ongoing fierce disagreements on particular issues. It can allow deliberation, not just argument, through which all parties’ views are broadened by conversation. Sustained ritual practices reinforce the necessary civic virtues. These include traditions as simple as the ritualized greeting and participant time-sharing of a small town-hall meeting. Whatever the extrapolation of such rituals to the web may be, it is not simply “voice.”

A growing body of democratic theorists, citizen-activists, and community problem-solvers explore how social media can be tapped to construct deliberative processes among people who otherwise might not have direct contact with each other.[2] These processes are not a matter of merely giving voice. They depend on:

  • unbiased recruitment mechanisms;
  • formation of ground rules;
  • development of mechanisms for communal fact-finding and tradeoff-negotiation;
  • process-checks that resist domination of discourse by powerful parties; and
  • imaginative creation of channels through which deliberative results inform the wider public and influence policy-making.

Process-designers intentionally develop virtual deliberations to support the habituation of civic virtues.

Facebook owes public penance for the violence to democracy caused by its failure to distinguish speech from reach, and voice from virtue. Facebook also has more resources than any other institution in America to facilitate a mass-scale experiment with online civic deliberation. Facebook could fund an independent non-profit organization that would use its platform to design a “bringing-together” deliberative experiment. The participants would be from diverse American socio-economic and political groups including those that have become hyper-polarized on Facebook. This experiment could provide a forum for Americans to practice civic virtues needed for productive political discourse.

Given the acknowledged corruption of Facebook’s platform in the 2016 presidential election, the 2020 election season is an ideal time for the company to commit to funding such an independently-lead experiment. A 2020 deliberative process should aim not to endorse candidates, but to discern common ends and public tradeoffs. It should be informed by the growing ranks of democratic innovators experienced with online deliberation, and the lessons learned by their efforts to date. Established leaders in online deliberation should be tapped to form an advisory board for this boldest-yet mass experiment in online democratic deliberation.

A Facebook-funded, independently-conducted, large-scale deliberative process in the United States could inform future reflections on how social media might support the cultivation of democratic virtues among the 90% of Facebook’s users living outside the U.S.

No matter how likely or unlikely such an event might be, good-faith citizens need not await Facebook to take the lead adapting habits of civic virtue in the age of social media. Facebook-users can decide to leave the site. They can choose to move to emerging new social media platforms that have made different ethical decisions about business model, content criteria, or privacy policy.

Or they can change their own habits on Facebook to support civic goals. They can train themselves to stop before sharing a post that seems inflammatory or based on suspect sources. They can reconsider how they use response icons, informed about how icon-use and other unreflective user-habits create “echo chambers” rather than theaters of genuine discourse.[3] They can develop grassroots new rituals for web-encounter, and for insuring all participants an opportunity for “reach.”

Non-violent disruption of institutions perceived as harming democratic discourse also has a time-honored place in American civic life. Users could disrupt Facebook in ways that would counteract anti-democratic amplification. They could tap icons inverse to their own emotional reactions. Or make up a new hobby to fuel misguided data-mining. Disruption would hamstring the problematic business practices shielded by the rhetoric of free voice. It would counteract polarized pathways. It would connect users to other users outside their usual circles.

But patriotic democratic disruption of Facebook would need to be carefully thought out. Unending lying is a mismatched means to protest institutionally-protected lying in public life. Mechanisms for harm-reduction and delayed transparency would be required ethically for disrupters.

Facebook’s overly-quick genuflection to free expression (1) shields its internal conflicts of interest; (2) ignores disparities of power among its users; and (3) fails to appreciate the disciplined civic habits necessary for robust public discourse. However, both Facebook and its users could change in ways that enable reach as well as speech, virtue as well as voice.


[1] Renee Diresta, “Free Speech is Not the Same as Free Reach,” Wired, September 8, 2018. Available at:

[2] Todd Davies, “Introduction: The Blossoming Field of Online Deliberation,” in Todd Davies and Seeta Peña Gangadharan (eds.), Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice. University of Chicago Press (2009):1-19. Available at:

[3] Michela Del Vicario, et. al, “Echo Chambers: Emotional Contagion and Group Polarization on Facebook,” Nature: Scientific Reports (2016): 6:37825. Available at:

Dec 5, 2019