Mark Zuckerberg still thinks Facebook has made the world better
Facebook turned 15 on Monday, and founder Mark Zuckerberg is feeling defensive about his creation’s public image.
“As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society,” Zuck wrote in a Facebook post, “there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the Internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.”
Zuckerberg employed one of his favorite rhetorical tricks for defending Facebook: conflating Facebook with the Internet as a whole. It’s true, as Zuckerberg writes, that the Internet has made the world more connected and that this has had a lot of positive consequences (as well as some negative ones).
But Facebook doesn’t deserve much credit for this. People already had plenty of ways to send each other messages, share photos, and update friends on their lives before Facebook came along. Facebook just made the process marginally easier. At the same time, Facebook has had a lot of negative effects on the world.
Facebook makes people depressed and angry
Studies show heavy Facebook use makes people lonely and depressed, as shallow online relationships crowd out face-to-face interactions. Facebook seems to be contributing to the increasing bitterness and polarization of American politics.
And the negative impacts seem to be even more severe overseas. Last year, The Tech News reported on an online propaganda campaign organized by members of the Myanmar military that attacked the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. That effort encouraged the persecution of the Rohingya, leading to thousands of violent deaths.
In Sri Lanka, online rumors inspired Buddhist extremists to kill Muslims in a spate of extrajudicial violence. “Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing,” a Tech News story found.
Facebook has been a particularly malign force for my profession of journalism. The newsfeed’s focus on “engagement” has given reporters a powerful incentive to write clickbait headlines. Meanwhile, Facebook’s growing dominance of the advertising market has eroded the economic base of many news organizations.
It’s hard to say exactly what Zuckerberg should be doing differently. Some of Facebook’s negative impacts might just be inherent to the medium of social media. But the first step toward fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. And while Zuckerberg occasionally acknowledges that Facebook has problems, his words—and more importantly Facebook’s actions—about the site’s shortcomings always seem half-hearted.
Facebook just lost Snopes as a fact-checking partner
Take Facebook’s fact-checking program, for example. Just after the 2016 election, Facebook announced that it would begin working with several third-party fact-checking organizations to identify fake news, label it as such on Facebook, and downrank it in the Facebook news feed.
It was a good idea, though probably not enough to fully address the fake news problem on its own. The problem is that Facebook doesn’t seem to be making it a high priority. Last week the fact-checking site Snopes announced it was pulling out of the partnership.
Facebook was forcing fact checkers to mark fake news stories using a cumbersome Facebook-specific interface. That took up a lot of time for the small Snopes staff, and the group decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers—it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook,” said Snopes Vice President Vinny Green. “At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API.’”
Facebook paid Snopes $100,000 to participate in the fact-checking program in 2017. Snopes hasn’t disclosed how much Facebook paid in 2018.
The Associated Press, another partner in Facebook’s fact-checking program, is reportedly also considering exiting the program.
To be fair, several other fact-checking organizations are continuing to work with Facebook—so it’s not like the fact-checking program is going away. In an email statement, Facebook stressed its commitment to the fact-checking program.
“We have strong relationships with 34 fact-checking partners around the world who fact-check content in 16 languages, and we plan to expand the program this year by adding new partners and languages,” the company said.
Still, the loss of Snopes seems to reflect the company being unwilling to devote significant resources to its fact-checking efforts.
And Zuckerberg’s Monday post suggests one reason why: Zuckerberg fundamentally thinks criticism of Facebook is overblown. He views Facebook as a positive force in the world and thinks critics are exaggerating the platform’s faults. And as a result, he doesn’t feel much urgency about addressing the site’s shortcomings.