Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just made a promise he can’t possibly keep. Reflecting on the Paris attacks in a Facebook post today Zuckerberg wrote about his own “experience with extremism.” A few years ago, he writes “an extremist in Pakistan fought to have me sentenced to death because Facebook refused to ban content about Mohammed that offended him.” Zuckerberg was undeterred by the proposed fatwa. Facebook, he says, has always been a place where “people around the world share their views and ideas, whatever those views are.” Zuckerberg believes that “different voices–even if they’re offensive–can make the world a better and more interesting place.” Calling the attacks in Paris a “group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions” of people around the world, Zuckerberg resolves that he “won’t let that happen on Facebook,” that he’s committed to building a service where “you can speak freely without fear of violence.”
Zuckerberg delivers inspiring words here and recounts personal bravery. Yet it’s unclear how Zuckerberg could possibly protect a Facebook user whose incendiary–or even mildly humorous–Facebook commentary managed to provoke extremists. It’s comforting to think at this moment that Facebook protects your right to free speech on its service. (And with the exception of your right to post “adult” or violent content, that’s generally true.) But Zuckerberg’s pledge doesn’t change anything–how could Facebook protect users from “a fear of violence” when that fear (and the violence) is authentic? Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its controversial content was also protected–by France, not Facebook. Protecting a right to express ideas and protecting the people who express them are two different jobs. Zuckerberg, however lofty his intentions, is hardly equipped to do the latter. Zuckerberg signs off with #JeSuisCharlieHebdo. Let’s hope yes–and no.