Facebook: grappling with political reality

I initially described Mark Zuckerberg’s latest mission statement as ‘vacuous’. That was a rather rude way of saying that there is a vacuum at the heart of his rhetoric. It’s politics.

What’s fascinating is that he probably realises this and is struggling to understand something that doesn’t seem to be a natural part of his mental world.

The Guardian’s Alex Hern has already annotated the inconsistencies and even contradictions in Zuckerberg’s visionary, but curiously nebulous grand plan. What links many of the gaps is this paradox: Facebook is a technology company being driven towards a more engaged, sociological understanding of the world by the political reaction to its power and influence. And yet, because of its history and its commercial logic, it is not very good yet at understanding the political reality of the world for which it wants to provide a (or rather ‘the’) social media platform.

Put aside for a moment any conspiratorial hostility to Facebook as some kind of neo-liberal, Silicon Valley plot to rule the world, in the vein of Egger’s dystopian novel, The Circle. Let’s accept and even celebrate the fact that it provides an extraordinary communications resource to the world that is increasingly popular across borders, generations and social groups.

Let’s also assume for a moment, that while profit is it’s corporate aim, it also has a strategic desire to be a benign presence in our lives. Even if you don’t think Zuckerberg is a saint, Facebook’s business and operational logic is to avoid causing offence or conflict while keeping the networks as free and open as possible. That’s how it makes money.

But when you read Zuckerberg’s statement, it becomes clear that Facebook’s political problem isn’t just that it must now negotiate with real world interests: publishers angry at how it has ‘stolen’ their advertising revenue or politicians who accuse it of spreading dangerous propaganda for example. Handling that is going to be a real policy problem, especially as solutions will vary according to custom and context in different markets or regions.

However, the real problem is that Facebook still sees the world as essentially apolitical. I think they could go a long way to improving their understanding by not using the word ‘community’.

Zuckerberg’s blogpost makes this extraordinary claim:

In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.

I don’t think that in any real or helpful sense there can be such a thing as a ‘global community’. As the United Nations soon discovered, there are only competing national or regional interests. These are made more complex by religious, ideological or economic interests. Insisting on a ‘community’ rather than recognising these often conflicting forces can often make things worse not better.

Facebook needs a better understanding of Realpolitik in its true sense — not cynical bartering, but a realistic application of a principled policy. Trying to pretend that Facebook can be all things to all people might sound lovely in general. But what happens in practice? for example, in China?

There are some very realistic things that Facebook could do right now to help create better public information and debate. Spending more of its money on filtering out fake news or signalling sources of more credible content is something they’ve started work on. Though I agree with Facebook that they should not go too far down that road in the face of recent moral panics. I don’t want Zuckerberg to be a global editor of news.

But what is its role in fostering human happiness beyond that kind of tinkering with algorithms?

To be fair to Zuckerberg, when he sets out the five strategic challenges for Facebook, he acknowledges that these are ‘questions’ not answers and that Facebook can only be an enabler, not a driver of specific changes in people’s lives:

  • How do we help people build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions in a world where membership in these institutions is declining?
  • How do we help people build a safe community that prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards in a world where anyone across the world can affect us?
  • How do we help people build an informed community that exposes us to new ideas and builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice?
  • How do we help people build a civically-engaged community in a world where participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population?
  • How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?

Without being too negative, it soon becomes clear that this all raises more questions than answers, especially with that ‘c’ word. Why should we ‘strengthen traditional institutions’? Many of them are sclerotic. And which ones? I personally am a Europhile, but I accept the EU needs to change. But my vision of reform would be quite different to, say, Nigel Farage’s. The differences are sorted out by politics.

Likewise, isn’t there something of a contradiction between exposing us to ‘new ideas’ and building ‘common understanding’? What exactly are ‘our collective values’? What is an ‘inclusive community’ when in practice any definition of a ‘community’ must exclude some people?

Again, this is about politics. In the real world.

Perhaps Zuckerberg should focus on his admirable but rather more modest end thought: that Facebook should start by “mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation”.

I don’t mean this as a cheap dig, but if his company paid more tax then perhaps those real world communities would have the resources to improve media literacy and social cohesion projects? Facebook already contributes much to providing human pleasure and sociability, if it wants to improve the world politically it could start by being a better citizen itself?

Charlie Beckett is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE and director of Polis, the LSE’s journalism think-tank

@CharlieBeckett