“Are we building the world we all want?” That’s the question Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is asking us in his treatise titled ‘Building Global Community.’
Addressed to the community, the entire 6,000 word manifesto talks about Zuckerberg’s plan of transforming Facebook into supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged and inclusive, global community. He talks about history bringing people together, of building social infrastructure to “empower us to achieve things we couldn’t do on our own.”
He says, “Our greatest challenges need a global response” and that, “Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”
That community, Zuckerberg believes, is Facebook. He states that Facebook has so far focussed on connecting friends and families, but that now, it will focus on “developing the social infrastructure of community.” He adds that Facebook is a work in progress, that learning and improving is simply a part of the culture.
To achieve this, Zuckerberg will now align Facebook around the building of communities. Communities that are “supportive safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive.”
Zuckerberg intends to build an idealistic world, and to that end, I’m very much in favour of his vision. However, I don’t trust Facebook to actually take responsibility for doing the right thing.
Facebook is a company, not an NGO
Facebook is a company first, a community leader only incidentally. As a company it’s built around only one concept, making profits. It will work for the greater good of the community only if that work translates to the greater good of Facebook’s shareholders.
While Zuckerberg’s mission statement paints a pretty picture, we must not forget that it’s Facebook’s actions up till now that have led to the rise of Trump, the proliferation of fake news at a global scale and the filter bubbles that Facebook’s algorithms encouraged, however unintentional those actions were.
As Medium’s Frederic Filloux so eloquently explains in a blog post, “Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one.”
He explains that Facebook’s revenue system is built around page views and sharing and that, “Sharing is key because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple bespoke advertising exposures.”
To achieve this, Facebook’s algorithms fine-tune what you see based on your interests. Facebook ensures that you stay in a comfort zone that it’s algorithms build for you. You will not be shown posts that are contrary to what Facebook’s algorithms determine are your beliefs.
In other words, you will not be shown posts that you wouldn’t “like”.
Facebook created the ultimate filter bubble
It’s not that we’re intentionally saying that we don’t want to see the real world. Facebook determined that it didn’t want to show us the bigger picture. We weren’t really given a choice in the matter. Facebook is indirectly shaping our thoughts.
I’m not accusing Facebook of deliberately bringing Trump to power or encouraging fake news. No, Facebook did none of those things. However, Facebook has left us at the mercy of Zuckerberg’s view of the world.
As Adam Mosseri, VP of Product Management for News Feed himself said, “We are in the business of connecting people and ideas — and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful.” He’s oblivious of the fact that he is, in effect, describing a filter bubble.
Filter bubbles are bad because they isolate us in our own cultural and ideological bubbles.
“Facebook is also incredibly effective at weakening the norms that hold real-world communities together,” says Wired.
Fake News and community responsibility are only a problem now because Donald Trump is in power. If Hillary Clinton was president, we wouldn’t have heard a peep from Facebook.
Filloux says it best when he says, “Facebook will solve just enough of the fake news to put down the raging PR fire. But the company will never jeopardise its money machine for the sake of mere societal considerations.”
So what’s Zuckerberg’s plan?
Facebook has always been a bunch of fractured, isolated communities that reside on a common platform. While Facebook encourages interaction with friends and family, it has so far actively discouraged interaction between rival communities.
Zuckerberg wants to fix this and he wants to start by bringing people from like-minded communities together and improve discourse.
“Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions,” writes Zuckerberg.
The plan is to bring diverse communities together, not on ideology, but on interests. Cricket fans and football fans coming together with other sports communities, for example. Zuckerberg wants to build a platform that will enable better communication among these communities so people will get to know each other. These platforms will then be used to encourage discourse on topics that matter. This includes civic responsibility, being more inclusive, etc.
Fighting fake news is also a big concern. For a start, Facebook will start using a combination of big data, AI and human curation to cut down on sensationalist stories. It’s easy to determine sensationalist stories, writes Zuckerberg, because people usually share the headlines without reading the content.
If people read the content and share it, such a story, and its publisher, will be ranked higher than one that’s shared without reading.
Zuckerberg would also like the community’s help in actively establishing community standards that each community agrees with. As he points out, sexually aggressive content might not be as welcome in the Middle East or Asia as it is in the West.
Ultimately, he wants to give community leaders the tools to better communicate with and manage their communities.
As Wired aptly puts it, “If your News Feed now feels like a tiny town, Zuckerberg seems to want to build cities. Or at least churches.”
Image Credit: Reuters
Zuckerberg even cites Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s example, where he points out that Modi has asked his ministers to “share their meetings and information on Facebook so they can hear direct feedback from citizens.”
Yet again, it looks like Facebook would like to control the flow of information.
Yet again, we must ask ourselves this question: Do we want it to?
There is no easy answer to that. Facebook is already too large to be ignored. Whatever steps it takes, for the better or worse, will shape the world as we know it. At the very least, I believe that we can take solace from the fact that whether misguided or not, Zuckerberg is at least trying to do the right thing.
However, as the saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”