Mark Zuckerberg has been doing a lot of public speaking lately after a rough couple of years for Facebook. First we learned that the social media platform was an instrumental tool for spreading fake news stories and misinformation that proliferated online during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. More recently, the social network has been mired in controversy over the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which reams of users' personal data ended up in the hands of a firm that worked for the Trump campaign.
Thank goodness Facebook also introduced more varied ways to respond to posts besides just "liking" them so we can give the platform a piece of our minds, right? Problems solved.
Or maybe not. Zuckerberg has been making rounds of mea culpas in recent months and also plans to testify before Congress in the coming weeks. A popular theme of the Facebook founder's recent media tour has been acknowledging Facebook needs to do more to address the ways that the platform can be used to do more harm than good.
For years, Zuckerberg has pounded the drum of Facebook's mission to connect the entire world, thereby enabling greater achievements and possibilities for humanity as a whole. The problem, of course, is that we don't all agree on what constitutes a great achievement. In fact, a lot of us have some downright terrible ideas that are informed by equally terrible information. And more and more, it seems, it's easy to find just such terrible information on Facebook.
Here's Zuckerberg kind of acknowledging this truism in an interview with Freakonomics Radio's Stephen Dubner that was recorded last summer but just released in its entirety on Monday:
"One of the things that I've found is that there's this myth that I think a lot of people have; that if other people in other places just had better information, then they'd make better decisions. And I've generally found that that is not true. You know we all lack some information. Of course we can all make better decisions if we had perfect information. But for the most part, a bigger influence is actually who you know, who your friends are, who your family are, and how they help you filter the information that you have."
Indeed. This is something that most of us figured out in the early grades. It matters who you hang out with (and where you hang out online, these days). There are kids who care about getting good grades in school, and there are kids who care about mocking those kids. Which group you choose to listen to and be influenced by can have a big impact on your choices. This is a simple truth that keeps all parents up at night. Now it's more clear than ever that it can extend to your online "friends" as well.
But to drive the point home, Zuckerberg dove head-first into America's opioid addiction crisis.
"When I was in Ohio, I sat down with a group of heroin addicts, and one of the things that was really interesting is when you're going through recovery, the first thing you have to do is detox, of course. But then after that, the next thing you have to do is basically get new friends. And it turns out if you remain friends with anyone who you were using with before, then you are very likely to end up back using heroin and endangering your life."
Zuckerberg also talks about visiting a juvenile detention center and seeing the influence of young people's real-world social networks.
"Going to a juvenile detention center dramatically increases your chance of becoming a criminal once you get out, because what you're essentially doing in that center is building a social network that reinforces itself negatively. All the examples that you're getting are other people who either have criminal behavior or are misbehaving, so kids who might have just been okay, a little not behaving as well as they should have in class, are getting all the wrong lessons and friends."
The lesson Zuckerberg says he took away from all this is the same thing parents often tried to drill into us as kids, as if it wasn't already obvious from the constant Lord of the Flies behavior swirling around us.
"So, making it so that we can have a positive social network I think is actually one of the most important things that we can do for growing opportunity in society... So that's definitely a big thing that we study and think about how we can improve."
I'll be curious to see what Facebook comes up with on that front. So far, the approach seems to consist largely of blocking Facebook users and accounts that it doesn't think make very appropriate friends for the rest of us.
In my experience as a one-time youth and later as a parent, this is an approach that doesn't work too well. Even today, the idea of daddy Mark Zuckerberg telling me who I can and can't be friends with doesn't sit well. I'm likely just to rebel and go hang out with the Reddit crowd instead, and lots of people there can be way sketchier.