Dear Mark Zuckerberg,
Through your position in Facebook, you may be holding more power over the fate of democracies around the planet than any other person has ever done through history.
That would in case make you more powerful than Genghis Khan, Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, Churchill.
Which means I think you need to consider this:
Since 2016 it has been almost impossible to attend a conference without hearing new talks about Facebook.
A family hunted by trolls
During this year’s SXSW conference, a man in the audience, German journalist Richard Gutjahr, told the story of how he and his family had been attacked by trolls on Facebook over several years, after having attracted the anger of extremists and conspiracy theorists. He told us how Facebook had brushed it aside, and even taken down his TEDx Talk sharing his story. He asked Facebook’s Public Policy Manager Shaarik Zafar:
«My family, is that just collateral damage to your stock price?»
When Zafar (who I’m sure is a good man in unfortunate circumstances) apologised and promised to follow up personally, Gutjahr replied he did not trust you anymore to maybe do something. He rather put his faith in the German government regulating you.
It will not magically disappear
Pressure on Facebook keeps mounting worldwide, as it becomes easier to recall examples of Facebook impacting democracy and political processes negatively around the world, than benefitting society. Your overview is probably better than mine, so I will not waste time on a recap, but you will for instance find several in this list of 68 Facebook PR scandals the last 12 months. My guess is, this pressure will not subside until substantial change has happened.
At this year’s SXSW Interactive conference, there’s quite a lot of experts discussing how Facebook can do this or do that to combat misinformation spreading: Artificial intelligence, human moderators, fact checking partnerships, media literacy programs.
What all these ideas share, is that they are treating the symptoms. They address what happens when a really strong engine for information distribution is exploited or misused to reach certain of the platform’s 2,2 billion users worldwide with pinpoint accuracy.
Put another way: None of the suggested measures address the disease itself. Some of these ideas may even create new, more critical problems downstream.
The disease of course being «What happens when a powerful tool built around monetising access to people is unleashed on societies around the world, and somebody wants to misuse it. Additionally what effects does it have all by itself, just by the way it works.». By now, the world has seen ill effects of Facebook time and again over the years. And to be fair, you have at times said «I’m sorry» afterwards …before you’ve moved on, with things rolling on in largely the same tracks.
Climate for finding solutions
On itself, Facebook may not be a force of good or bad. But anti-democratic forces have in many cases been more adept at harnessing its power. Further, and arguably worse, the underlying dynamics of the newsfeed favours extremes, and stronger emotions, downplaying nuances and middle ground.
Those who have been self-radicalised on Facebook may no longer see anything but confirmation of their own views, counter attacks on their identity, or even fabricated content designed to rile them up.
This does not create a fruitful climate for finding good ways of living together in society – which, at heart is what democratic processes are about.
It is time to realise that this is hard or impossible to repair with technology, with human moderators, or possibly even by breaking up Facebook or regulation.
With the creativity of millions of people, malevolent actors’ expertise and resources, and powerful and wealthy backers, new methods will find ways around countermeasures faster than you can plug the old holes in the system.
A way that might work
The only way to fix it I can see, is for Facebook – and here I’m specifically thinking of you Mark Zuckerberg yourself, and your COO Sheryl Sandberg – to fix the disease at the core. To actually take full responsibility for what you have built, what it has developed into, and for how you have allowed it to be used.
You have to define what will from now on be off limits for Facebook. Decide what you will never again be complicit in.
And of course I believe societies around the world should do their best to limit the damage Facebook is capable of causing. But real, lasting change can only come from within.
A moral core
Your change for good needs to spring out of fundamental ethical principles internally. A moral core guiding everything Facebook will and won’t do in the future. Every single employee needs to instinctively understand which paths no-one inside Facebook will ever walk down again, no matter their profitability.
I assume you are familiar with this well known snippet from the ethical code of medicine: Primum non nocere, «First, to do no harm». I think this is something you should start applying this to the societies you operate in, and have become part of the internal fabric in. You need to ask yourself: What are the things I can do to enable all employees to join me in taking full responsibility for the health of societies?
Choose your path
Pulling out of everything vaguely resembling politics would be a good first step. And quite easy. But you will need to construct a complete set of fundamental principles for what you will allow your legacy as a human to be: A man who realised his mistakes and changed the course for something better, or a destroyer of worlds.
I’m not alone in thinking along these lines. The other day your former mentor Roger McNamee said something along the lines that you could do a 100 times more good by changing your business model than any foundation could ever do.
Lead by example
To be fair, McNamee is no doubt right that Google, Amazon, Microsoft utilise the same mechanisms for behavioral modification, and for monetising of access with little responsibility to others than the stock holders. But why don’t you lead the way out of this algorithmic hellhole you have led us all down into? Go into history as the father of algorithmic responsibility?
In a little over 10 years, Facebook has developed into a global utility. Sadly, this has had ill effects on democracy. So I think it is time you started acting like the responsible creator of the world’s largest weapon.
Or as Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings said: «One who is very strong must also be very kind».