Facebook Wants Great Power, But What About Responsibility?

Feb 19, 2017
Originally published on February 20, 2017 10:20 am

The chief of Facebook made an ambitious announcement last week, though it would have been easy to miss. It came Thursday afternoon — about the same time that President Trump held his news conference. While the reality-TV icon is a genius at capturing our attention, the technology leader's words may prove to be more relevant to our lives, and more radical.

Mark Zuckerberg posted a nearly 6,000-word essay to his page, entitled "Building Global Community." Many are calling it a "manifesto." His ambitions are global and his tone, altruistic. Zuckerberg writes: "Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics."

Zuckerberg speaks to people who dream of global citizenship, a borderless utopia that many political leaders around the world don't seem to be offering. "In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us," he writes.

And to build this global community, Zuckerberg encourages us to shift how we think about Facebook: stop looking at the app as a means of recreation. Instead, think of it as the way you connect to others — for work or for play. You can use it as a medium to let the world know about your startup or to recruit parishioners to your church or to announce your presidential campaign or to manage a multinational disaster relief effort. "Going forward, we will measure Facebook's progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall," he writes. He adds that the strengthening of "meaningful online communities" will "strengthen our social fabric."

It sounds noble, but behind that alluring vision is a profound power grab delivered by a savvy politician, say critics. At its core, Zuckerberg's essay reads like a call to give up our open access to the Internet and the freedom that exists in a marketplace with real competition. Rather, Facebook wants us to step into its walled garden — where a handful of company chieftains set the rules — and live our social, economic, and religious lives inside it.

What he doesn't address in his essay, however, are the responsibilities that come with this power.

Take for example, disaster relief. A well-intentioned nonprofit could try to use Facebook to let refugees fleeing conflict know about safe places to go to for food and water. Now, a group of human traffickers, posing as well-meaning citizens, could do the same. What kinds of resources will Facebook invest in verifying what's real versus fake?

Zuckerberg's lofty goals require profound trust in his platform. And there are two industries — journalism and small advertisers — whose recent experiences with Facebook illustrate the dangers of over-trusting. (Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams.)

Journalists have been surprised to learn that Facebook is concerned with driving engagement — not to be confused with civic engagement. The algorithm that determines what you see in your News Feed prioritizes content that people want to share and comment on, even if it's a lie. Consider how fake news influenced the presidential campaign of 2016. One such story that went viral last fall claimed the pope had endorsed Donald Trump.

If Facebook valued real journalism — where resources are poured into the expensive business of fact-checking — its corporate leaders could have decided to implement a simple solution to fake news: make the source for news stories more prominent (so I don't have to strain my eyes to see if it's The New York Times or the National Enquirer). Facebook already does that for celebrities, through the blue verification check mark that tells you the platform has verified and confirmed the true identity of the person.

Imagine if Facebook had visually obvious verification for links that come from trusted news outlets. It would do an enormous public service. Facebook's current corporate approach to fact-checking links is crowd-sourcing. Let the users flag suspicious content. It's a system susceptible to warring factions sabotaging each other. And it's not clear from the manifesto that Zuckerberg is willing to change the model to one that pays for essential human capital — far more expensive than software solutions.

Small advertisers have been discussed far less but probably have the best insight into Facebook's volatility as a platform. Say I decide to start a page for my tire shop on the site. For the first year, I pay Facebook $5,000 to advertise and the Facebook algorithm shows my posts to all my "followers." But the next year, the company decides to change the rules and say: for $5,000 we will show your posts to 20 percent of fans. If you want to reach the same number you did last year, you have to pay more.

These kinds of rule changes — some with dramatic financial implications — regularly occur on the platform. (See for example this change last April that severely limited which users are allowed to post commercial content.) They occur without a user vote and without a public comment period.

Right after Zuckerberg posted his manifesto, NPR emailed the company to ask about the new responsibilities that will come with the hoped-for new power Facebook seeks. If Facebook wants people to rely on the platform as the tool to build important social ties online, what guarantees can Facebook give for its own accountability? Can it at least offer something as basic as a customer service hotline, for example? Currently many users who are expelled without clear explanation or who have small business pages removed find it impossible to reach a human at the company for help. A spokesperson did not answer the question, and simply shared the company's press release summarizing Zuckerberg's points.


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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is the era of social media, when we distill our innermost thoughts and feelings into short pithy updates and tweets. Which is why it was striking when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote a nearly 6,000-word essay about his company and its value in the world. It is a sweeping vision. And here to talk with us about it is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Hi, Aarti.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: What's in this essay, and why is it getting so much attention?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Well, the official title is "Building Global Community." And what Zuckerberg lays out is that people need to connect to each other quickly in local communities, across countries. And Facebook should basically be both the biggest, most comprehensive Yellow Pages ever seen on earth. And it should be the phone, email, direct message and/or group announcement tool you use all rolled into one. He writes that going forward he wants to measure Facebook's progress in part based on meaningful groups, so not just how many active users there are but how much they're using Facebook to do their work.

And, you know, one thing I will note is that in terms of tone, it's very hopeful and really speaks to people who want global citizenship, you know, a borderless world. He's not a politician per se, but this conversation about globalization versus stronger borders is very much part of the political debate right now.

MARTIN: OK. So that sounds nice and altruistic to some degree, but what are you reading between the lines here?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) There is so much to read between the lines. I mean, at its core what Zuckerberg is not spelling out but is the obvious implication is, hey, everyone, I know the internet's supposed to be this open thing with freedom and real competition, which of course puts a check on power. But Facebook is really convenient, and we want you to step into our walled garden where a handful of company chieftains set the rules and live your social economic and religious lives inside it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHAHANI: So just, you know, come in and trust us.

MARTIN: So there is that old saying with great power comes great responsibility. Any inkling that Zuckerberg gets that, that he's thinking through what it means to be Facebook as he has articulated the great sweeping altruistic power in light of all the criticism Facebook has gotten for how it's handled things like fake news?

SHAHANI: You know, no, he really doesn't speak to that. And I actually asked the company about that specifically. And the PR rep just sent me the press release again, which is a non-answer. You know, I'd say there are two industries that already illustrate the dangers of over trusting Facebook.

You know, for one, there's the news industry. And I've spoken with news leaders at different outlets who feel disappointed that Facebook's done so little to help users distinguish between news sources. You know, in the physical paper days you'd see clearly on the news stand what's The New York Times versus what's the National Enquirer. You know, on Facebook it's all blurred visually, which is great for making stuff viral but not for sorting out well-reported content from fluff or even falsehoods.

The other industry - and I'd say they deserve a lot more attention than they've gotten - is small advertisers, people who are trying to use Facebook to promote businesses or brands and already find, hey, this company takes my money, changes the rules a lot, and I feel like I've invested in a platform that may not be good for me after all.

MARTIN: So how's this going down? How's this so-called manifesto being received?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) There's a range of reactions. Some people have noted Zuckerberg is really evolving and being a politician for his digital state. And on his Facebook page, there's also, you know, a lot of praise, people who like that there's a leader out there spelling out a positive vision for how we can break down barriers, you know, in a world that feels like there are a whole lot of barriers right now. So really there's a range of reaction to it, you know, as you would expect.

MARTIN: I like the walled garden metaphor, Aarti, I got to say. NPR's technology reporter Aarti Shahani. Thanks so much, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.