Facebook may be the most culturally and politically impactful company that has ever existed. But it lacks leadership that understands and can guide its global cultural and political role. The best way to remedy that is for Mark Zuckerberg to have Barack Obama by his side.
Mark Zuckerberg is obviously a gifted businessman, technologist, and leader. Those gifts, however, do not seem to extend to managing the cultural and political nuances of 2.2 billion people in 195 countries communicating in the service’s 136 languages. After all, as Zuckerberg himself told me when I was reporting my book The Facebook Effect back in 2009, “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” But governments have checks and balances that Facebook sorely needs.
Facebook has had its share of difficulties, to say the least. The troubles show no signs of ending and could easily get worse. Many of them concern fundamental threats to speech, media, and worst of all, democracy around the world.
Zuckerberg hasn’t handled those challenges well. He’s shown too little contrition and candor when problems have been identified. And he has failed to assure the world he is taking sufficient steps to repair the parts of Facebook that are broken and that hurt society. He still seems unwilling or unable to sufficiently control and oversee the company’s systems, advertisers, and users. As a result, new revelations pop up almost daily.
In his public appearances, especially before the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, Zuckerberg has conveyed the impression that whatever errors the company made were relatively minor compared to its positive impact on peoples’ lives — connecting them, creating global community, and suchlike. He appears to think that since the company has so obviously created good in the world, there is no need for contrition about the societal evils it has also engendered. He seems only barely aware of just how alarmed many well-informed observers have become about his system’s effects.
Admittedly, he is instituting modest reforms. But what’s needed is a more fundamental shift in attitude and ethic. This is not a communications problem. It is a set of challenges intrinsic to the company’s very essence, which may require alterations to basic elements of how it operates.
Threats to democracy are literally everywhere, and are what should worry us all the most. The scandals around the Russian electoral manipulation and Cambridge Analytica are not isolated incidents. Similar, less-publicized crises are happening in just about every country, leading to public confusion, political dysfunction, and sometimes even death and destruction. Facebook has proven way too easy for bad actors to manipulate when they want to influence politics.
In overt political efforts, the company has always adopted a scrupulous neutrality, but the world and the company need to examine what the limits ought to be, for example when it does things like assist Germany’s ultra-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) gain its first-ever seats in parliament.
Maybe Zuckerberg hasn’t gotten good advice on how to handle the growing accusations that Facebook impairs democracy. Or maybe he has overruled those who advise him. Smart and effective as he is, he thinks like an engineer. Public policy is not his forte, nor should it have to be, even though his company has profound implications for public policy.
He needs someone, or more than one person, who he feels obliged to listen to when they tell him his company should do things differently, for society’s sake. He needs advisors with firm ethics who understand the gravity of the company’s impact on public dialogue, overall social discourse, and politics, and who can help him think more methodically about how to improve that impact. He needs to hear more from people who do not believe every problem can be solved with a more pointed application of technology.
Facebook must take a fundamentally different turn, and that requires new voices in the mix. While there are a few leaders of sufficient gravitas who would both understand the scope of the global civic and political challenge and have the stature to influence Zuckerberg, Obama obviously does. Others might include Kofi Annan, David Cameron, Bill Clinton, or Nobel Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari.
The company needs someone of this stature inside, helping it navigate the treacherous shoals that come with being a commercial company that has become the global town square in every language.
There are obviously plenty of other changes needed at Facebook. One, for example, might be creating an internal review board that includes experts in civil liberties, media and speech rights. Zuckerberg should at least listen to people like that before making decisions pertaining to personal data, ad targeting, and publishing and broadcasting. Perhaps Obama or another global leader could chair such a body.
So would President Obama be willing to do it? It is hard to imagine where his input could do more short-term good for the world at this point. Fixing Facebook is an urgent global imperative. Plus, Facebook can certainly afford him.
And in fact, Obama has shown interest in getting involved in tech investing and entrepreneurship. Where would he learn more than inside Facebook?
Just having Obama in there would begin to reassure and calm worriers like me all over the world. As it stands now, honest and moral politicians, voters and citizens have an enormous amount to worry about, when it comes to Facebook.
David Kirkpatrick is Techonomy’s founder and the author of the 2010 book, The Facebook Effect, the only history the company has ever cooperated with. “Can We Govern the Net Giants?” will be a main topic at the Techonomy 2018 conference this November 11-13 in Half Moon Bay, California. Learn more.
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