Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?

“We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend,” Zuckerberg writes. It’s a comforting sentence, a statement that shows Zuckerberg and Facebook are eager to restore trust in their system. But … it’s not the kind of language we expect from media organizations, even the largest ones. It’s the language of governments, or political parties, or NGOs. A private company, working unilaterally to ensure election integrity in a country it’s not even based in? The only two I could think of that might feel obligated to make the same assurances are Diebold, the widely hated former manufacturer of electronic-voting systems, and Academi, the private military contractor whose founder keeps begging for a chance to run Afghanistan. 

…for all its rhetoric about connecting the world, the company is ultimately built to extract data from users to sell to advertisers. 

…What had been presented as a democratic town hall was revealed to be a densely interwoven collection of parallel media ecosystems and political infrastructures outside the control of mainstream media outlets and major political parties and moving like a wrecking ball through both.

Opportunistic hucksters and unhinged true believers sold bizarre conspiracy theories, the former for the purpose of driving traffic to their advertising-festooned websites and the latter out of some mixture of cynicism and zealotry. Hyperpartisan sites like TruthFeed and Infowars now made up what Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society called a right-wing social-media “attention backbone,” through which conspiracy-­mongering and disinformation traveled up to legitimating sources and with which extreme actors could set the parameters of political conversation, as Breitbart did with immigration. There was no easy way to moderate or counter this without abjuring democratic values. 

…BuzzFeed reported on the existence of a secret Facebook “task force” that had assembled, without managerial oversight, to deal with the problem of misinformation. That BuzzFeed was able to learn about the task force was as noteworthy as its existence: Dissent is rare at Facebook, and openly critical leaks like that are almost unheard of.

For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected,” [Zuckerberg] wrote. “This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime.”

It was a remarkable thing for the CEO of Facebook to admit: Zuckerberg had spent years touting Facebook’s ultimate goal as making “the world more open and connected,” as he wrote in a letter to investors in advance of the company’s 2012 IPO. Now he was suggesting that the “more open and connected” world that Facebook facilitated had turned out to be a stranger and more perilous one.

In his January post, Zuckerberg was still disinclined to place specific blame on Facebook, but he could certainly see the wreckage both to the liberal political order and to his company’s brand. 

…In nearly every state he’s visited, Zuckerberg has attended religious services or met with religious leaders. In Texas, he drank coffee with pastors; in Minnesota, he ate Iftar dinner with Somalian refugees; in Charleston, he ate dinner with the entire cast of a walk-into-a-bar joke: “The reverend, rabbi, police chief, mayors, and heads of local nonprofits.” The next day, he visited Mother Emanuel AME, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed eight parishioners and the church’s pastor in 2015.

Asked by a Facebook commenter last year if he was an atheist, Zuckerberg replied, “No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.” It was a telling way to put it. Publicly, at least, his interest in religion seems to be more sociological than existential. After attending services at Aimwell Baptist Church, in Mobile, he wrote on Facebook about “how the church provides an important social structure for the community.”

This has, generally, been the theme for the trip: How does this whole “community” thing work? And if you’re looking for an example of a powerful and enduring community that supersedes geographical territory, ethnic heritage, or class interest, religion offers a particularly fascinating case study. The Muslim Ummah united Arab tribes and non-Arabs in a universal community of believers. The Catholic Church was both a rival and a complement to state power, providing essential services and legitimizing the governance of kings and emperors, almost entirely through the force of shared values.

What shared values might Facebook enforce?

…It used to be if you wanted to reach hundreds of millions of voters on the right, you needed to go through the GOP Establishment. But in 2016, the number of registered Republicans was a fraction of the number of daily American Facebook users, and the cost of reaching them directly was negligible. Trump was able to create a political coalition of disaffected Democrats and rabid right-wing Republicans because the parallel civic infrastructure of social media — and Facebook in particular — meant he had no obligation to Republican orthodoxy.

…The policy changes announced by Zuckerberg in September represent an effort at self-regulation — Facebook’s way of saying “Trust us, we can handle ourselves.” But this isn’t a particularly appealing pitch. Facebook has been wrong, often: It spent most of the year insisting that it had sold no political ads to Russian actors. Twice in the past year, it’s admitted misreporting metrics to advertisers. Earlier in September, ProPublica discovered that it was possible to purchase ads targeted at self-described “Jew-haters.” Maybe more important, it’s not clear why we’d imagine that Facebook’s interests are the same as the U.S. government’s.

…It’s not that there are no possible outside checks on Facebook’s power. The problem posed by Russian ads has an easy and direct regulatory fix. “It should be illegal for foreign governments to buy political ads,” said Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and author of The Attention Merchants.“Facebook should be required to screen and disclose what their advertising practices are, how much people are paying, whether people get the same rates.” Congressional Democrats have recently been pushing to regulate online political ads under the FEC.

Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?



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