Here’s a mystery about Facebook. The people in California who run the world’s largest social network (1.9 billion users at last count) have been trying to explain and defend what they do. In an essay of more than 5,000 words written in a style which reads as if it is the work of many hands, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg explains his wish to build a “global community”.
The puzzle is this. If I were marking this as a student essay I’d be grading “Building Global Community” as a B-minus. The terms are vague, obvious questions begged are ignored and historical context is missing.
But Zuckerberg and his colleagues are not fools. They have built one of the world’s most extraordinary companies; they are curious and inventive. Why is their grasp of ideas, politics and history so feeble?
A cynic would say: it’s obvious that they only say what suits the company’s commercial interest. They must sound public spirited because the fake news controversies before and after Donald Trump’s election have put them in the firing line. Look at Facebook’s new proposals to help news and journalism – a more or less straight copy of Google’s “Digital News Initiative”.
This doesn’t explain Zuckerberg’s manifesto. It may be written in an oddly opaque language which never seems to ask what its key words (“we”, “community”, “empower”) actually mean, but I’m left with the strong impression of someone who wants to do the right thing. Zuckerberg has gradually acknowledged – and made fully explicit in this document – that Facebook has responsibilities that are moral and democratic. For a hi-tech company, that is a significant step.
Facebook’s next steps should be:
1: Think about words and meanings. Begin with the word “community”. If a community exists not just to be but to do something, it needs organisation. That form of organisation allocates power to decide. At its simplest, it might be naming the person who makes the decision when the talking has to stop: in Facebook’s case, presumably Zuckerberg himself.
2: Acknowledge that in the digital age, algorithms are a source not only of wealth but of power. The decoupling of the generation of news (by journalists) from the means of its distribution (social networks) is a major shift in information power. What a Facebook user sees is an interplay between strategies set by humans, algorithms which they design and the information which the software accumulates about an individual user’s preferences. So the distribution of power in this new relationship is subtle, but it is still power. To write – as Zuckerberg does – as if Facebook was a benign, self-governing collective with no decisions about how to use its power is to deny a reality that is plain to see.
3: Politics is the study of the distribution and use of power in societies. “Building Global Community” talks about civics but not about politics. The word “power” makes one nebulous appearance early on: “At each step [in history], we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.” That misses the pivotal element of choice and competing ideas in how these “social infrastructures” were designed. Politics in the developed world from the 19th century onward can be written as the contest between two aspirations: equality of economic outcome and equality of opportunity.
4: There is nothing wrong with admitting that you’re wrestling with tension between the interests of the individual and collective decisions. From the start, Facebook has been organised around satisfying individual choice (and making money from an advertising engine built round that). Now the network is forced to look at the balance between free choice and the decisions of a community. Don’t assume that artificial intelligence will crack it soon.
5: Reasoning about what make society better improves with diverse viewpoints. Zuckerberg’s essay contains one colossal sleight of hand which ought to come back to haunt him. Discussing “filter bubbles” and fake news he says: “Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has.” This carefully written formulation is, strictly, true. It might be more accurate to say that digital technology provided the opportunity for millions of bloggers, tweeters and networkers to publish opinions. But the omission here is the individual, not the aggregate, experience of social networks. The individual’s feed need contain no diversity at all – and often doesn’t. Zuckerberg says that in news Facebook will try to help its users “see a more complete picture”.
6: That’s progress, but it doesn’t deal with how the millions of filter bubbles which make up Facebook are going to be welded into a global community. Technology makes wider – if not global – connections possible. Those links can be used for good or evil. Technology does not decide how connectivity is used; people determine that. A social network such as Facebook which makes individual choice its guiding principle can be used to distribute a plan for ethnic cleansing as easily as to circulate a church cleaning rota.
7: The public sphere in a democracy is a peaceful battleground for competing ideas. Those systems usually provide for one set of ideas to win out at elections (and less often in referendums). Democracy requires citizens to rank ideas. The idea of the “public interest” is a utilitarian idea – it rests on an assumption that chosen people (often politicians or judges) can estimate the greatest benefit to the greatest number. Voters may listen to politicians and pundits for advice. The idea of expertise is out of fashion, but when people do find the established media useful it may be because it brings to the surface facts or opinions which people want to learn. Some of this information is more insightful, more accurate and more valuable than other bits.
8: You may think this summary of democratic communication very obvious, naive or hopelessly old-fashioned. But I mention it because no mention of the battle of ideas – or anything like it – occurs anywhere in Zuckerberg’s plan for building a global community. Facebook appears to rest on the unspoken assumption that all information is of equal potential value (since everyone should be comfortable with what they find on Facebook). Journalism operates on the opposite belief.
9: It’s just possible that, in future centuries, humans will look back at the period from the 18th to 21st centuries and think how odd it was that people learned about the wider world from information intermediaries who were known as journalists. I don’t think that would be a good or even likely development, but just suppose it for a moment.
Try the thought exercise of imagining what the public sphere might need if there were no journalists. Any society that wished to deliberate or decide anything from rules for the ingredients of sausages to space travel would need to try to ensure that its citizens were literate in how to distinguish fact from fiction, knew how to apply tests and scepticism to what they were told and could separate emotion from reason. Or I would hope that they would think these skills useful.
In short, societies would have to educate people about how they can recognise or discover the truth. Whatever may happen to journalism’s struggle to find way of persuading people to pay for it, such civic education would be good in its own right. Would Facebook help?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies