As Facebook turns 15, the CEO and founder laments that journalists and fellow founders are critical about how the network deals with privacy, fake new and other scandals. So we asked business leaders what they think
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Mark Zuckerberg thinks you’re being too nasty towards him. While the past few years have seen Facebook involved in a multitude of scandals like the Cambridge Analytica affair and a constant smattering of accusations about how the network isn’t doing enough to tackle fake news and hate speech on the platform, the founder of the network spent his post commemorating the 15th anniversary complaining that people “overly emphasise the negative.” But some executives across the industry don’t think people are being critical enough.
No one is doubting Facebook has come a long way since the Zuck launched the social media network from his dorm room on February 4 2004. Since then it has morphed into a tech titan with 2.7 billion users across the world. Today, Facebook has become one of the most powerful companies in the world.
In his post, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the internet in general and Facebook in particular has enabled people to find others with similar views. “Now, you can connect with anyone and use your voice,” he said. “You don't have to go through existing institutions in the same way. People now have much greater power and that creates opportunity but also new challenges and responsibilities.”
However, this ability to connect isn’t always seen as a good thing. In the past, this level of connectivity has been linked to the spread of fake news that could’ve affected democratic elections in the US and France, the Brexit referendum and may’ve even exasperated the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar in 2017.
In his post, Zuckerberg did acknowledge the concerns about the how Facebook is affecting democratic institutions as well as individuals’ wellbeing. “These are all critical issues and we have a responsibility to manage these networks more proactively to prevent harm,” he said. And Zuckerberg pledged to do more. “We're now taking steps that wouldn't have been possible even just a few years ago – for example, this year we plan to spend more on safety and security than our whole revenue at the time of our IPO and the artificial intelligence required to help manage content at scale didn't exist until recently,” he wrote.
Despite being forced to testify in front of the United States Congress and the European Parliament following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and amidst concerns against how Facebook is affecting democracies, Zuckerberg seemingly felt that the criticism against the company is a bit exaggerated. “As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasise 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,” he wrote.
Instead of taking this pessimistic viewpoint Zuckerberg believed “what we're seeing is people having more power and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time.”
However, people were quick to push back at the Zuck’s idea that the negativity against the network was exaggerated. One of them is Julian Ranger, founder of Digi.me, the scaleup enabling users to take control of their data. He told Elite Business Facebook has been a positive force in some ways. “However, as with any service the bad can overtake the good if that bad is left untended – like weeds in a wheat field,” Ranger said. “Facebook has believed for too long that the negatives would be ignored if the positives were still a draw for people using the site, but the weeds are now choking the wheat. There are solutions to privacy – Facebook needs to adopt them. Political adverts, dangerous and obscene messages have to be policed. It isn't a free speech issue any more than it is for the traditional press – AI and other processes, can be applied to this problem and need to be with urgency. If we can amend the DNA of the wheat to make it grow more crop, then we can put the same effort into better weed killers that don’t adversely impact the environment.”
And he’s not the only one who is troubled by the development. Chloe Beckett, strategist at Verbalisation, the strategic communications agency, told Elite Business: “[The] fresh concerns that the rise of social media has thrown up are presenting us with some of the world’s most challenging problems today: how do we ensure we’re seeing balanced content [and] how do we know that what we’re reading is true? In fact, the strengths that Zuckerberg celebrates can easily be viewed as some of Facebook’s major weaknesses. While the founder describes his impact as ‘bringing the world closer together’, the reverse may actually be true.”
Morten Brøgger, CEO of Wire, the collaboration platform, went even further. Pointing towards issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the emails unveiled in December 2018 where staff discussed selling user data to big advertisers, he told Elite Business that “Facebook has nothing to celebrate on their 15th birthday.” Brøgger added: “Mark Zuckerberg once famously said that the biggest risk is not taking any risk but compromising user privacy for profit is a risk no exec should be willing to take. It is clear that Facebook has never understood the importance of digital privacy in its entire 15 year existence.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Facebook has sat ideally. From teaming up with fact-checking charity Full Fact to banning hate groups like Britain First from its platform, the Menlo Park company has admittedly made some efforts to clean up its act. But will that be enough? “I think not,” said Richard Holway, chairman of TechMarketView, the analyst and advisory firm. “Facebook carries comment that would just not be entertained in our local paper. To clean up its act it will have to employ huge numbers of censors. If the trolling and associated abuse continues, so will the bad press and people really will turn against them.”
Indeed, Facebook’s efforts to change public perception wasn’t helped by some fact checkers hired by the company who claimed that they were only used as a PR stunt rather than to actually fight fake news, according to a report in Business Insider. Similarly, in November 2018, a New York Time expose accused Facebook of using a PR agency to allegedly smear George Soros, a business man often at the centre of a multitude of anti-semitic conspiracy theories. And in late January 2019, it was revealed by TechCrunch that Facebook had allegedly paid teenagers to get access to their data through a research app.
So even though it seems as if Zuckerberg would rather focus on the positives, it’s clear that there are still many things Facebook has to work on.