Whatever else you want to say about Facebook, don't say the company doesn't learn from its mistakes. The past few weeks have provided plenty of evidence that Mark Zuckerberg and his crew know they're operating in a changed world, one where they must at least appear responsible and responsive.
Just this week, Facebook introduced new tools to help its users manage how much time they spend every day scrolling through status updates and photos. It also revealed a swift crackdown on 32 pages operated by "bad actors" whose goals seemed to mesh with those of the Russian intelligence operatives who used Facebook and other social media platforms to spread propaganda and controversy during the 2016 presidential election.
Last week, the company imposed a temporary personal ban on Alex Jones, host of the conspiracy website Infowars, for videos that violated its policies on bullying and hate speech, and warned him that continued transgressions would get his outlets kicked off the platform altogether. And, of course, all this comes on the heels of Facebook, having committed itself to expensive new security safeguards, suffering the largest-ever single-day stock market loss by a single corporation.
If you squint just right, it all looks a little like the actions of a company that's been born again in righteousness, or at least scared straight. And that's how it's being greeted. "Unlike after the 2016 election, when it took Facebook more than a year to come clean in a public post to its users about disinformation from Russian agents, Facebook is being more forthright this time around," Slate noted approvingly after the announcement about bad actors.
Wired's Alex Whitcomb, who spent more than a year working at Facebook, went further, declaring, "We're lucky Mark Zuckerberg is in charge." Responding to Facebook's $120 billion stock market nosedive, Whitcomb took his hat off to its founder. "Mark Zuckerberg told us all he would put our safety and fixing the problems of Facebook ahead of profits. He did that," he wrote. "He has gone from his 'move fast and break things' mentality to breaking the Wall Street bank with how much he's unwilling to give up our safety."
Easy there, Sparky. The notion that Zuckerberg sacrificed something dear to him by accepting a reduction in Facebook's quarterly earnings or share price is a pure canard. While Zuckerberg has a fiduciary duty to create value for shareholders, Facebook's ownership structure makes him virtually immune to firing, and the company is in no danger of a hostile takeover. Zuckerberg has always said he's not all that interested in money, and even his critics concede it doesn't seem to be a primary motivator for him. In any case, a 20 percent poorer Zuck is still one of the world's richest individuals. Heaping praise on him for passing up an opportunity to be marginally richer is like commending your cat for not barking at the mailman.
No, what gets Zuckerberg out of bed in the morning is impact, the ability to effect change--power, basically, though that's not a word Silicon Valley idealists like. For him, that means getting everyone in the world on Facebook, or "building a global community that works for everyone," as he would put it.
The best way to gauge how much Zuckerberg values this goal is watching what happens when it comes into conflict with another one of his priorities, like free speech. Notionally, the goal of "giving everyone a voice" is so important, he is unwilling even to say posts denying the Holocaust happened should be censored. "At the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong," he told Recode's Kara Swisher, necessitating a hasty clarification that clarified little.
But even as he was standing up for anti-Semites' speech rights, Zuckerberg was continuing his tireless efforts to secure a toehold for Facebook in China, where it has long been clear that the price of entry for U.S. tech companies is playing along with the government's strict censorship over news and personal expression. (To facilitate its return to China after an eight-year absence, Google reportedly built a version of its search engine "that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest," according to the Intercept. ("We don't comment on speculation about future plans," Google says.)
While insatiable profit thirst helped create the conditions for the spread of fake news and Cambridge Analytica's data banditry, Zuckerberg's obsession with getting every Earthling inside the big blue tent has made the company vulnerable in other ways. For starters, 2.5 billion users make for an awfully big target. And Zuckerberg's palpable fear of ever alienating any constituency makes him comically easy to game with bad-faith complaints. After hosting a delegation of huffy conservatives in May 2016 to hear out their bias concerns, he was so keen to appear fair and to not be taking sides in the presidential election that he let Russian propaganda run rampant on the platform.
A Facebook that was comfortable articulating values other than inclusiveness for the sake of growth would have an easier time making tough calls around things like the limits of acceptable speech. It would also inevitably pique some people who disagree with those calls, or who profit from stoking ignorance and hatred.
You'll know when Mark Zuckerberg has done something demonstrating real moral courage because it will cost Facebook users, not just dollars. Until then, please, hold your applause.