You might have read Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s nearly 6,000-word manifesto on global community. It’s partly a response to the crises of fake news and polarization in the US; it’s also a statement about Facebook’s future goals as a company and as a platform.
Some people are speculating this is the opening statement of a future political career for the Facebook CEO. Some people are reacting with cynicism. Regardless, there are many interesting things this document and in a companion BBC interview that addresses it.
Zuckerberg’s post at the highest level discusses “building social infrastructure” for communities (not just online) and how Facebook can and will enable that on a global basis:
For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.
He acknowledges that the project he envisions is larger than Facebook but says the company can play a critical enabling role. He lays out five questions that will guide the next phase of Facebook and probably its product development to some degree:
- 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?
Zuckerberg’s lengthy missive goes on to unpack each of these categories and what they mean for the company and society at large.
The BBC interview complements and explores some of what’s laid out in Zuckerberg’s manifesto. He has previously had an almost utopian view of Facebook and its impact on the world. In the interview and his post, he acknowledges many of the problems and social issues that are a basic challenge to Facebook’s self-described mission to “make the world more open and connected.”
There are discussions in the interview of the impact of globalization on those left behind, political polarization and Donald Trump, among other issues. Zuckerberg repeatedly declines to comment on Trump directly, though his missive is a rebuke to some of the isolationist and anti-immigrant themes of the Trump administration.
Perhaps the great paradox of Facebook’s success has been the rise of “filter bubbles” and insular sharing that reinforces or exacerbates polarization and division. Zuckerberg addresses this in his letter:
The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding . . .
[O]ur goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this . . .
Zuckerberg has seen Facebook as a force for bringing people together (and he still does). But there’s no question that Facebook has deepened a kind of tribalism in some places. Indeed, this may be the greatest single challenge that Facebook faces: how to bring people together; or at least how to get them to see and recognize the legitimacy of viewpoints other than their own.