Death of the Facebook author: rethinking ‘intent’

In a recent interview with ReCode’s Kara Swisher, Mark Zuckerberg explained that the reason Facebook allows conspiracy theorists and, specifically, Holocaust deniers, to disseminate their views on his website is that

At the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.

This answer came in the context of Swisher asking why Facebook gives voice to InfoWars and Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. Zuckerberg accepted that ‘it’s hard to … understand the intent’, but maintained that it is not Facebook’s duty to ban or silence a user unless they’re inciting or inflicting harm.

The day after the interview, reacting to a swift backlash, Zuckerberg apologised, emailing Swisher to insipidly explain that he finds Holocaust denial ‘deeply offensive’ and, in an appropriately twisty turn of phrase, ‘didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.’

However, because, as Zuckerberg says, ‘everyone gets things wrong’, Facebook’s current policy is not to erase ‘hoaxes or blatant misinformation’ but simply to reduce the rate at which they spread.

The fact that such decisions source their authority by inferring a user’s purportedly sincere motivations is telling, and depends on two delusions. First, that intent can be cleanly separated from action, as if morality were modular. And second, that intent is the most significant determining factor of an action’s moral quality and social tolerability. This rickety justification is part of a trend demonstrating the poverty of corporate vocabulary when it comes to issues of intent, a poverty that both those in power and advocates of fascism cheerfully exploit.

Zuckerberg has found himself and his company in a genuinely difficult situation. The fundamental problem is not the philosophical crudeness of the social media giant’s ethical criteria (crude though it is), but that no private company should be the arbiter of such decisions, especially on such a grand scale. We are in this situation because rulings on the acceptable boundaries of public discourse are being made by a man whose principal obligation is not to his users but to his shareholders. The imperative is profit – and Nazis and conspiracy theorists are profitable.

Zuckerberg’s rhetorical retreat to intention signals a desire for a moral universe in which an objective, benevolent social media company can develop systems to reliably police public discourse, algorithmically divining what constitutes permissible free speech, able to distinguish between deception and naivety. The fantasy is maintained because if intent were a cleanly discernible characteristic, the system which permits corporations to perform a demeanour of detached neutrality would remain sustainable.

Yet social media’s doctrine of corporate neutrality is repeatedly shown up as hollow, something best exemplified by Twitter’s refusal to ban Donald Trump, despite his account clearly contravening their guidelines, a section of which is dedicated to the kind of hateful conduct that the US president seems to understand to be the platform’s chief purpose. Whether banning Trump would be at all worthwhile is another question, but it is difficult to take seriously a platform that pledges to ‘increase the collective health, openness and civility of public conversation’ when it is unable to prevent its most powerful user making serious threats of (for instance) state violence against Iran.

The belief that intent can dictate which political claims we deem acceptable is not exclusive to Facebook. NPR, The New York Times, and The Toronto Star have all explained that in covering Trump, they account for perceived intent when deciding how to describe his apparently pathological mendacity. Journalists at these outlets are hesitant to describe a statement as a lie, both because of the word’s moral weight, and its implication that the claim is intentional and malicious. These news organisations have spent their long histories developing a scientistic, clinical style that cannot accurately describe a conservative class with no positive agenda, driven only by the frustration and undoing of progressive action. A vocabulary presuming good intentions will only ever fuel an ideology assembled near-exclusively from bad faith arguments.

The question of intention has long been a primary concern of my field, literary studies. In 1946, WK Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a seminal essay titled ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, arguing that the author’s intention is irrelevant to a critical analysis of a text. In 1967, Roland Barthes made a similar, if more nuanced and less straightforward, claim in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’, which is so influential in the field that it has become a cliché to acknowledge it and a crime to ignore it.

Although many presume Barthes was totally dispensing with the author, he was instead demoting them, proposing that the writer’s intention or nature should not be the final standard by which we judge a poem or novel. For now, the debate around how to account for authorial intention continues, and likely will do so indefinitely, which is fine. The purpose of the humanities is to discuss these questions, not resolve them.

But there is a consensus in the field that what the author meant is not a fact that can be finalised and that even if it could, authorial intent would not be an especially interesting or useful fact. It helps, here, to consider how we think about intention in our everyday lives. In our relationships, the value of a person’s positive intention is only as valuable as their willingness to follow it through. It is not entirely separable from expression, and it is also not the lens through which we should evaluate expression.

When we talk about intention we are talking about our belief in other people and this is a matter with no clean lines. Part of the subject’s allure is surely bound up in our desire to become more familiar with our own intention. A world in which intention is verifiable is a world in which we can be sure of our own minds and comfortable with our own actions. But the story that this is attainable is no more than a comforting fiction. And it is the story most compatible with late capitalism and conservatism.

As Corey Robin persuasively argues, the conservative movement finds its definition in reaction to revolutionary progressive movements, whether that be the French Revolution, abolition, gay rights or women’s liberation. Facebook, positioning itself as a detached observer sans ideology, is the ideal venue for the validation of reactionary politics, the sincerity of which should be immaterial. Yet, in the libertarian vocabulary of twenty-first-century start-up culture, the sincerity of political hatred is worth protecting, flinging the Overton window open so wide it could swallow the earth.


Dan Dixon

Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney. He writes regularly for Overland’s online magazine, and has also been published in Meanjin, the Australian Book Review and The Lifted Brow.

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