Mark Zuckerberg on trial

June 20, 2019
Ali Broomer
Senior Account Director

Zuck sucks. According to his critics, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, presides over a company which is undermining our basic freedoms. But should we give him the benefit of the doubt as he seeks to rebuild the world’s trust in Facebook?

Last week, my colleague Rachel Bateman and I participated in a fascinating debate put on by Intelligence². The panelists were extremely strong, which made for quite the show down. Critics for the motion were Damian Collins, Conservative MP, and Nina Schick, a tech expert on how AI is shaping geopolitics. Defenders against the motion were Dex Torricke-Barton, former head of executive communications for Facebook, and Ed Vaizey, Conservative MP.

Here are the main take-outs:

Facebook’s original mission to be a connector of the world may now be a philanthropic masquerade.

  • Defenders kicked off with the most inspiring point. Facebook has enabled 2.2 billion users to connect – that’s 30% of the world’s population – all for free. Because of it we can share our lives with friends and family, promote our local businesses business, join support groups and raise money for non-profits. That is truly amazing, and something we are all guilty of taking for granted.
  • But the critics encouraged, we can’t be distracted by this fluffy language. The hard truth is Facebook is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world (now at over 2.8 billion shares), and its users are their product. Being in advertising myself, there is no debate that Facebook is a tool that has changed our industry forever, and it is extremely effective and profitable.

Facebook’s role in the outcome of recent political elections was correlative, not causative.

  • Critics accused Facebook as playing a determining role in the outcome of the 2016 elections for the UK to stay/leave the EU and the US Presidential election. Russia created false user profiles posing as Americans and posted controversial false news to sway the vote. Facebook ads were used in the Obama election as well, but the difference is he only utilised 6 general target categories, compared to the Trump election, which had over 150 segments to influence and change voting behaviour with precision. The platform simply can’t co-exist with democracy. From fake news to hate speech, they do not have the proper resources in place to monitor what users put on the platform by publishers.
  • Defenders rebutted that taking this stance was belittling – are critics assuming that individuals have no ability to shape their own point of view on politics? The platform has massively increased resource in the content protection unit and fake news has decreased 40% since 2016, but Facebook can’t do it alone. The real problem lies with politicians who use polarising rhetoric again and again – Facebook is simply a tool where their opinions are shared, and because of this, the platform has become the scapegoat of negative political outcomes that the world is not happy with. When directly asking critics if Facebook caused Donald Trump to be elected, the answer was obviously no.

Facebook has made many mistakes, especially in data mining, but they have owned up to (most of) them.

  • Critics pointed out Facebook’s practices of harvesting data from their users and friends, which is an unethical breach of trust which was amplified by their inability to protect this personal data. Even when you are not using the site, they monitor your movements to inform their business decisions. Acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp has allowed them to create a monopoly in the sector – is this democratic business behaviour? The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shed light on just how much data the platform had on users, and although Zuckerberg apologised, there are likely other Facebook partners who were guilty of the same practices but were not put on trial. They only responded to the bare minimum.
  • Defenders challenged that this same data is also used to ensure you have relevant content in your newsfeed. Without it for example, you wouldn’t be able to see that precious photo of your friends’ new baby or get that instant news update that a hurricane is quickly approaching your area. Zuckerberg not only apologised and took responsibility for Cambridge Analytica when put on trial, but has since taken steps in clarifying data release language and working to ensure other partners are not exploiting the vulnerabilities of the platform.

The conclusion: Facebook is overall damaging society.

After the speakers made their cases, the question ‘Is Facebook Damaging Society’ was put to a vote by the audience – The vote breakdown was 59% for the motion, 40% against, and 1% undecided.

It’s clear the majority feel Facebook Is having a negative impact on society. So what can we do about it?

I believe in 2004 Zuckerberg genuinely set out to create a global community, but the technology has moved on faster than we could have ever imagined. Looking to the future, it is clear Facebook, and other networking platforms, will have a role in shaping our society – this is an inevitable given.

If we want change, then we need to take action:

Facebook needs to operate ethically and transparently. Facebook is a trailblazer, a first. Trial and error are part of any Silicon Valley start-up, and although Zuckerberg has apologised for past wrong doings that he may have not foreseen, he needs to put these values at the core of his business operation and personify them. This is the only way he will rebuild trust in his users.

Politicians need to catch up, quickly, with policies suited to support our modern world. The immediate focus should be allocating resource to help monitor content that is uploaded to the platform, and this needs to be done at a global level. The press has recently started to shed light on the reality of what being a Facebook content moderator entails, and it is shocking. In my opinion, monitoring terrorist groups, hate content and fake news on this scale overlaps with the remit of many governments and should not be the sole responsibility of any business. The UK has recently published the ‘Online Harms White Paper’ which states their intention to establish a new statutory duty of care to hold companies accountable and an independent content regulation committee. Although the objective is positive, the proposal currently lacks a thought through framework and process to action change anytime soon.

Another example of change that is needed at the policy level is the psychological impact of addictive social networking platforms. Dopamine boots have us hooked on technology to the point that Black Mirror predictions are quickly becoming our reality. This was not discussed at this event, but I know I am amongst many who feel passionately about this topic. Is the government going to take any steps to proactively manage the inevitable long-term impact Facebook and other platforms will have on future generations?

Individuals, brands and news publishers need to be accountable for the content they post and be conscious of how they are using the technology. The platform has made it possible to connect the world, but what we are saying on it is up to us. It is also up to us how often we engage with the platform. Try challenging yourself on when to engage and when to be present in the real world (e.g. please do NOT fall guilty of doing the Zombie shuffle with your head in your phone whilst walking on public sidewalks and crowded tube stations!)

With great power, comes great responsibility. The question is not forgiving Zuckerberg and giving him the benefit of the doubt. If we want Facebook to return to the good ol’ days where the pros outweigh the cons, working together is the only way forward. This, and this alone will ensure that time on Facebook is truly time well spent.