Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to have more power in our lives, and we should resist
Facebook seems unlikely to police itself, so it’s up to its users and other organizations to start to exert pressure for it to do so.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook a combination of a personal and company manifesto. He also spoke to a number of reporters regarding it. The manifesto is long, and it covers a ton of ground, some of it about the state of the world, but much of it, at least indirectly and directly, about Facebook and its role in such a world. The manifesto is notable for its concession that Facebook has enormous power and has, in some ways, contributed to some big problems plaguing the world. But, more worryingly, it seems to think the solution is more Facebook.
There has been rising concern about Facebook’s power over many facets of our lives for years now, and the concern is especially strong when it comes to news and media consumption, where Facebook is becoming an ever more important channel. Because Facebook’s algorithms determine which things users could be shown, Facebook bears a primary responsibility for making decisions about the media world its users live in.
Facebook’s incentives are to show people the things they’re most likely to enjoy, engage with and share with their friends. But the assumption is that this means showing them things that fit with their existing views, rather than challenging them. It means it often ends up creating so-called “filter bubbles” in which people are only ever exposed to media that confirms their existing views, and only rarely to contradictory views.
Zuckerberg’s manifesto acknowledges all of this, but proposes solutions that are focused on Facebook itself, rather than on weaning people off their reliance on Facebook. That’s understandable — his job is to get people to use Facebook more rather than less but, of course, this approach merely reinforces Facebook’s power and potentially even increases it as it takes a more active role in showing people a range of content. This is a theme that flows throughout the post, talking about all the things Facebook can do to take an even bigger and stronger role in the lives of its users.
Nowhere is this more striking than when he starts talking about participation in the democratic process:
The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.
That, to me, sounds like Zuckerberg envisions a world in which Facebook itself becomes the medium through which communities (i.e., cities, states, countries) would govern themselves. Given existing concerns about Facebook’s power to shape media consumption, the idea that it would take a direct role in governance (rather than merely allowing people to vote or connect with their elected representatives as it has done in the past) should be terrifying.
It’s arguable that even Facebook’s “Get Out the Vote” efforts have potential to distort the democratic process, given that usage skews younger than the overall population. But at least it doesn’t give Facebook a direct role in the democratic process itself. If I were a local government, I’d be extremely wary of allowing Facebook a deeper role in any of these processes — I think it’s time for both individuals and organizations to push back against Facebook’s enormous power rather than embracing an expansion of it.