Every year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes on a challenge. One year it was to learn Mandarin. Another it was to visit every U.S. State and one year he ran 365 miles. This year, he’s doing something more important. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do,” he wrote in a blog post. And this year he’s focus on thinks like:
- Protecting our community from abuse and hate
- Defending against interference by nation states
- Making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent
His “personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues,” so that “we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.”
Zuckerberg wrote that “one of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization.” He said that most people believed that technolgoy would be a decentralizing force, “But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.”
And, of course, Facebook is one of those big companies, which touches the lives of more than 2 billion people around the world. Facebook also impacts what happens in the “real world,” including how people get the information they use to make important decisions, like electing their leaders. Although no-one has proved that what was posted on Facebook may have changed the outcome of the 2018 U.S. election, there is no question that it had some impact given the amount of fake news and Russian propaganda that was distributed on the platform.
Facebook also faces challenges when it comes to how people treat each other on its platform. It’s dedicated a lot of resources towards curbing cyberbullying and harassment, yet those remain issues for many Facebook users. Facebook has also been working to cut down on hate speech within its platform, but it has more to do in that regard.
Zuckerberg poitns to “counter-trends” like encryption and cryptocurrency, “that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands, but he says that they “come with the risk of being harder to control.”
While Zuckerberg is certainly right to worry about centralization, including the enormous power in his own hands, he also needs to think about how to use that power for good. Frankly, I don’t think that encryption and cyptrocurrency — as useful as they may be — are the solution. While I don’t have all the answers, I think the solution starts by acknowledging that Facebook has to work in a larger framework of cooperation both the regulatory bodies (governments) and organizations that advocate on behalf of constituencies and communities. My own non-profit, ConnectSafely.org is one of those organizations, which does work closely with Facebook as part of its Safety Advisory Board. And, while Facebook has consulted us and other groups and has even taken our advice from time to time, I think the company can do more when it comes to seeking and listening to advice.
Facebook is not alone. Social media, by definition, is subject to the whims and abuses of the people who use it and, as long as people have flaws, those flaws will be reflected in the media they contribute to. Still, there are things the company should and can do more.