Our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community. —Mark Zuckerberg
When Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was told fake news posted on Facebook influenced November’s presidential election, he initially called it “a pretty crazy idea.”
Zuckerberg has long presented Facebook — the largest global news distributor with over 1.8 billion users — as an apolitical tool designed to bring friends and family together (much like bridges or dance floors, according to a heavily mocked 2012 TV ad).
But since his post-election comments, Zuckerberg has taken the platform’s influence on journalism and politics more seriously, partnering with third-party fact checkers and making it easier for users to report suspicious stories.
In a Feb. 16 letter to Facebook users, a sprawling 5,800 word manifesto on the company’s future titled “Building Global Community,” Zuckerberg reinforced this shift in perspective. In the company’s first revision of its mission statement since its 2012 initial public offering, Zuckerberg acknowledges the platform’s fake news missteps and forecasts more direct involvement in helping its users become better informed and engaged in local and global politics.
Yet public responses to this lengthy treatise over the past two weeks have been mixed, with many still debating what Facebook’s new vision means for the future of journalism and democracy and calling on Zuckerberg to more clearly define how the company will prioritize its humanitarian mission above its monetary goals.
Facebook’s new political mission
“For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families,” Zuckerberg writes in his letter. But now he is setting his sights on bigger, more controversial goals.
“With that foundation,” Zuckerberg continues, “our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community.”
Although he never quite defines “social infrastructure” — a phrase he uses 14 times — prompting one of the most frequent critiques of the letter, he goes on to describe its intended purposes in detail.
Zuckerberg asserts Facebook can work to “strengthen traditional institutions,” build “informed” and “civically-engaged” communities and promote “global safety” by facilitating communication among communities, governments and citizens and, ultimately, the entire globe.
He acknowledges concerns about the limited “diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news)” and commits to continuing fact-checking efforts and making space for content that reflects a wider variety of perspectives.
But Zuckerberg argues that overall, Facebook can and will make users more engaged and informed, pointing to the ways Facebook has increased voter turnout and noting that it facilitates conversation between elected officials and their constituents.
Ultimately, Zuckerberg sees Facebook shaping and improving nearly every aspect of public life by keeping everyone connected, promoting “the grandiose notion that Facebook’s future role is to be the glue holding the fabric of global society together,” according to TechCrunch.
Despite Zuckerberg's great optimism, many weren’t fully persuaded by his comments on Facebook’s new direction.
Is Facebook destroying journalism?
Zuckerberg’s letter introduces a new filter option that some fear will prevent users from seeing all sides of the issues in their news feed, even though Zuckerberg envisions Facebook providing users with “a complete range of perspectives.”
This new feature will allow users to control the amount of profanity, violence and politics in their feeds by selecting individual preferences. For those who don’t set their preferences, “the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum,” Zuckerberg writes.
However, Mashable observed that “even as Zuckerberg concedes in his note that Facebook has a ‘filter bubble’ problem, he outlines a system that delivers content according to a moral standard set by a majority of people. This definitely isn't going to pop anyone's Facebook bubble.”
Though many commended Zuckerberg’s continued efforts to eradicate fake news, some fear the new filter option will reinforce echo chambers where users are exposed to journalism that reflects their own beliefs rather than challenging them with new ideas.
Others lamented the digital advertising dollars Facebook has already diverted from news organizations, arguing the platform’s projected expansion poses an even greater threat to the industry.
The Atlantic called Zuckerberg’s manifesto “a blueprint for destroying journalism” because it outlines taking over many of the traditional roles news organizations hold, such as keeping citizens informed, promoting civic engagement and building community. Zuckerberg is, in essence, “building a news organization without journalists,” The Atlantic concluded.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Steven Waldman, a former senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, argued Facebook should donate 1 percent of its profits for the next five years to help repair the journalism market it destroyed.
Though Facebook recently launched a journalism project to establish stronger ties with news outlets by collaborating on products and providing training tools, Waldman said its efforts to support these organizations aren’t nearly enough.
Yet Fortune insisted Facebook doesn't owe traditional news media anything: all the platform did was "take advantage of a new technology to offer a more compelling service — one that newspapers themselves could have easily replicated. They chose not to."
Will Facebook threaten democracy?
Others are concerned about Facebook’s largely unchecked global power and how the company will choose to wield it.
The Guardian called Zuckerberg’s letter “a template for Facebook’s role in a new world order,” arguing the massive platform’s “power and dominance, its knowledge of every aspect of its users’ intimate lives, its ability to manipulate their — our — world view, its limitless ability to generate cash, is already beyond the reach of any government.”
Forbes suggested Zuckerberg’s manifesto, which outlined the potential of Facebook algorithms to predict terrorist activity and gather intimate information about users based on the posts they “like,” indicated these tools could “just as easily be used to predict who is heading down a path towards having ‘objectionable opinions’ and might speak out or even march against their government.”
Forbes speculated these predictive technologies could make the “precrime” world of the science fiction “Minority Report” a reality, where governments across the globe could punish individuals for crimes not yet committed.
Though Facebook currently resembles a “benevolent dictatorship,” according to the Columbia Journalism Review, and its new mission is couched in humanitarian terms, only time will tell how and whether its aims are carried out.
Humanitarian or commercial priorities?
While some commend Zuckerberg's goals as noble and some see them as potentially harmful, most responses to the letter call on Zuckerberg to more specifically describe how he plans to carry them out and how he will ensure they aren't overidden by the company's economic interests.
New York Magazine noted that "Zuckerberg definitely seems to believe what he’s saying about building a global community, but there’s little concrete in here about how it would be accomplished — or, more importantly, how it will affect Facebook’s business model and bottom line, which is still the driving force behind everything they do."
In the end, many fear Facebook’s ultimate objective will prove to be no different than that of any commercial enterprise — increasing profit.
Vox explained that in order to be commercially successful, the platform must maintain user engagement. Unfortunately "engagement" is often synonymous with "sensationalism" because a "one-sided, partisan article will typically generate more clicks than a nuanced article that gives each side of an issue their due."
This means eliminating polarization and fake news, among the highest of the letter's stated priorities, may actually counter the company's business objectives.
Some feel a commercial social media platform could never rise to the idealism Zuckerberg describes, but others feel he may, in time, prove himself.
If Zuckerberg really wants to be considered “an authentic social thinker,” he should “start by having Facebook pay its fair share of taxes,” The Times of London remarked, likely referencing controversy surrounding the way it reroutes income from UK advertisers to its Irish headquarters, where corporate tax rates are lower.
Recode concluded that “the question going forward is whether Facebook supports this massive Mark Manifesto — which is precisely what it is — with just money and long letters. Or does it fundamentally change the way it works — as an attention slot machine that turns that attention into money — in order to support the ideas Zuckerberg has outlined.”