I left Zuckerberg’s “connecting” platform in Oct 2016 when the divisiveness became too toxic

His “manifesto” and tone deafness on Facebook’s responsibility in the current global climate need to be challenged

Facebook in 2007

I joined Facebook 10 years ago as an avid user and quickly became addicted to the “connecting” platform for both personal and professional use. Mark Zuckerberg’s 2007 F8 announcement that FB was opening their platform remains an “a ha” moment for me and I commend him for getting the timing just right to ride the massive wave of social media.While at French ad group Hemisphere’s lab in NYC I worked with michael lazerow and his kickass Buddymedia team to deploy the first branded FB app for the French market in late 2007.

Fast forward 10 years and election 2016 brought to the fore the worst of social media that I had insulated myself from: ill-informed comments and bickering and the echochamber effect, which I’ve described as kryptonite for our democracies (see my post on the topic): “I’ve been quite vocal on Facebook with my political leanings and would describe myself in a US context as a Liberal Republican (a defunct strand). I wasn’t a fan of Hillary Clinton and made that clear. Unlike most of my Facebook “friends” I maintained an open dialogue with vocal members of both “camps”. This led to some tough conversations and I saw how comfortable the echochamber was for many of my friends.”

Over the past year Mark Zuckerberg has made a series of evolving statements on the nature of his company and the role of Facebook in the dissemination of “fake news”:

August 29, 2016: in front of university students at Rome’s Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali,: “”We’re a technology company, we’re not a media company. When you think about a media company, you have people who are producing content, who are editing content, that’s not us. We’re a technology company. We build tools. We do not produce any of the content.”

Nov 9, 2016 at Techonomy: “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,”

December 21, 2016 during a Facebook Live chat: “Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company,” the 32-year-old C.E.O. said during a Facebook Live video chat on Wednesday. “You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used. We don’t write the news that people read on the platform, but at the same time we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute the news, and we’re an important part of the public discourse.”

Feb 16, 2017 in a “manifesto” published on his platform: ““While we have more work to do on information diversity and misinformation, I am even more focused on the impact of sensationalism and polarization, and the idea of building common understanding,”

As very well summed up by Recode’s Kara Swisher and Kurt Wagner: “The letter is also a change in direction from Zuckerberg’s initial who-us? shrug following the election, as many blamed fake news and filter bubbles on Facebook for influencing the election results. “This has been painful for me because I often agree with those criticizing us that we’re making mistakes,” he wrote about the news controversy, as well as errors Facebook has made taking down laudable things like “newsworthy videos related to Black Lives Matter and police violence, and in removing the historical Terror of War photo from Vietnam.” Still, because Facebook is defined by the always-hew-to-the-middle-road approach of Zuckerberg, he also hedges. In other words: Sorry, not sorry (since it’s really just about humans being bad, as they are wont to be).

Mark Zuckerberg famously went for advice to Donald Graham, Katharine Graham’s son, very early on in the history of Facebook. It boggles the mind that the scion of one of the most illustrious publishing dynasties in the US was not able to impress upon Zuckerberg the responsibility that comes with owning a platform through which ideas are disseminated. The trope that Facebook is a “tech” platform only, with no impact on the media consumed through it, almost like the US Postal Service, is ludicrous on many levels. It smacks of the techno-libertarian roots of Silicon Valley that imbue Zuckerberg’s worldview, even if he purports to be a progressive.

The role of technology to serve the exchange of ideas has been key since Gutenberg’s moveable type revolution in Europe. The first gazettes were 18th century versions of Facebook — where news was curated and copied from gazette to gazette and transmitted via the post. The 13 colonies that declared themselves to be “United” States were united by a network of gazettes and newspapers and the founding fathers made sure that generous postal subsidies maintained a healthy free press.

Fast forward to the 2010s and we’re faced with a US media landscape corroded by the end of local monopolies over cash cows (classifieds) in print media and the inability and unwillingness of local TV to maintain Ed Murrow/Walter Cronkite standards. The US public embraced social media and thereby forced publishers to be where their audience flocked to, with the results we witnessed. The supposed digital “level playing field” where each web page is equal to the next was a great “democratic” illusion. Newer generations and the so-called “information poor” increasingly relied on social media for their information, in addition to TV, where news had morphed into entertainment.

2016 was the perfect storm: a candidate identified with the status quo and with famously frosty relations with the press, pitted against a media “whore”, who guaranteed ratings to cash-poor broadcast networks. CBS chief Moonves had the gall to offer what he now says was a joke:

My own experience up until my departure from the platform was marked by a clear increase in toxic conversations and the bubble/echochamber effect tainted most everything.

Facebook having “eaten the web”, as analyzed by Fabien Loszach, it was the perfect target for abuse, both by soft money interests and more nefarious foreign intelligence services employing hackers. The fact that it took so many months for Zuckerberg to acknowledge the context of this particular election is more than troubling. Again, it shows an inability to understand one’s role in the democratic landscape and shows Silicon Valley’s perennial cop-out that “we’re just platforms”, “we don’t write the news.” The fact that Facebook is essentially an ad-supported walled garden content bubble seems to elude many, who still think it’s a tech company. Its purchase of Oculus serves to bolster the “tech” DNA but let’s face it: when you’re the go-to platform where billions of ad $ are spent, you’re a media, not a tech company.

So what’s next for Facebook ? A series of half-hearted, half-ass attempts at alerting the public to “fake news”, like this one:

Will this be enough to re-educate the public to be media literate ? Clearly not.

What can be done and who needs to do it ? So-called traditional media brands need to own their digital presence again and should rethink their partnership with Facebook (and with Google for that matter).

Parents should also take on the responsibility to educate the next generation of citizens and teach their children that there are peddlers of inaccurate stories out there and that the fact that everyone owns a printing press does not mean that “it’s on the internet” means it’s true.

As for myself, my friend and colleague Alexandre Michelin has nudged me to start to participate on Facebook again and I will do so to engage with our Mood Disruption group.

See you there soon !