The least democratic of all major global institutions just got even less democratic. Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it apparent that reforming his vastly-influential but off-the-rails company will be even harder than we thought. Anyone worried about global democracy and the state of global public speech should be alarmed.
At the beginning of a quarterly earnings call, Zuckerberg said: “For much of the last decade…because we wanted to be liked, we didn’t always communicate our views as clearly because we worried about offending people…My goal for the next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood. In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for.”
Zuckerberg then enumerated several well-known but controversial company policies–he called them “principles”– that “aren’t always going to be popular.” They include not censoring speech, moving towards encryption across the company’s products, fighting against proposals Facebook should charge a fee rather than be supported by ads, “standing up…against those who say targeted advertising is a problem,” and notably “standing up… against those who say that new types of communities forming on social media is dividing us.” He concluded by saying “I think it’s important for us to take these debates head on.”
“My goal for the next decade isn’t to be liked, but to be understood. In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for.”Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO
Here’s how I translate that: “We know what’s right. We will do what we want to do, despite any criticism.” And here’s why it is deeply hypocritical: Facebook is not participating in the so-called “debates” he so rightly identifies happening about its role in society. Zuckerberg almost never engages directly with critiques of his service’s societal impacts in fora where he can be challenged, with rare exceptions like when he is called to testify before government inquiries. Other senior executives do so rarely. The company’s high-handedness is manifest in many ways.
This all is deeply offensive, because Facebook plays a unique and gigantic role in global society and must be held to account. It is the world’s largest platform for speech–a vast institution of global civil society. This commercial enterprise–among the most profitable companies that ever existed–has by a peculiar and unique chain of events become the most important fora for public conversation in just about every country in the world. That fact carries with it a vast range of responsibilities. But with his newly combative stance, Zuckerberg is actively shirking many of those responsibilities. His belligerent approach is all the more frightening because he all alone has absolute control over every aspect of company decision making. Facebook’s board and shareholders have literally no power to override his decisions.
To say he and his company no longer care about being “liked” is outrageous because he is the unilateral controller of the most powerful global arbiter of speech. It is tantamount to saying he will not have much dialogue with the world. It implies even less interest in accommodating the valid concerns of societies worldwide on which his company’s footprint is so pronounced. He is increasingly behaving like a distant emperor making pronouncements about what his subjects can and cannot do. On Friday he arrogantly doubled down further, saying during a softball public interview at a Utah tech conference that the company’s “new approach” is “going to piss off a lot of people. But frankly the old approach was pissing off a lot of people too, so let’s try something different.”
Facebook is a company besotted with secrecy. Almost no-one enters its cavernous offices without signing a non-disclosure agreement. Under those conditions, it occasionally does invite in critics from around the world–including those who have witnessed firsthand the disastrous and sometimes fatal consequences of dishonest and fake news and hate speech on societies in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. But requiring such people to sign NDAs means that these few honest interchanges Facebook has with critics remain resolutely off the record. The company can thus hear what outsiders think without the world learning what Facebook executives think.
Of its many incendiary and controversial company policies right now, the most worrisome for many is the one that lets politicians lie and disseminate fake news without restraint or oversight in their advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Zuckerberg himself has several times reiterated this in public, notably at Georgetown University last October (without taking questions, of course). He casts his “principles” as being about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. He resolutely rejects any comparison to traditional media, though to be fair he does say he wants government to help internet companies make the difficult decisions.
This policy is terrifying for many Americans, who saw the role of such ads and fake news in the last presidential election. It is also dangerous in every other democratic country, in almost all of which the processes of democracy are currently being rocked by manipulation of public opinion when politicians, governments, and other political actors use Facebook and other social media to incite fear and anger among the public and voters for political advantage. This is a significant factor in the current global increase in autocracy, in the opinion of many political scientists and other experts. Here, for example, are three books that make aspects of that argument in detail: Antisocial by Andrew Marantz, Antisocial Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan, and the upcoming The Hype Machine: How Fake News and Social Media Disrupt Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Lives by Sinan Aral.
(The criticism of Facebook in this arena is growing fiercer. George Soros wrote an opinion column in the New York Times last week accusing Facebook of being a conscious ally of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, saying Zuckerberg should step down as CEO.)
The Facebook leader made clear in his remarks on the earnings call, though, that he does not believe communities on social media are dividing societies. And if he gets his way, soon he will encrypt all Facebook community conversations, including those where hate-filled groups conduct their evil business, hiding them from scrutiny and allowing them to operate with even more impunity.
Zuckerberg said on the call “there will be debate” about how to manage electoral interference and political speech on Facebook. Too bad for the entire world that he barely engages in that debate. In the earnings call he also said “communicating more transparently” is one of the company’s top 4 priorities for this year. To which one can only say– prove it.
Techonomy Editor-in-Chief David Kirkpatrick ten years ago published the award-winning The Facebook Effect. It was at Techonomy 2016, in one of Zuckerberg’s very few recent open public interviews, where two days after the presidential election Kirkpatrick asked the question that led the CEO to say it was a “crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook affected it.