In a new interview published today, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg goes long on a wide range of topics including selling data, taking Holocaust deniers at their word, fake news, and one simple idea that’s crazy enough, it just might work.
The revelation that Facebook lost control of millions of users’ data and that it ended up in the hands of a shady political consultancy served as a tipping point, reminding the world of the long list of missteps, screwups and malpractice that have characterised the company’s entire existence. In the months since it first admitted how poorly it handled that situation, Zuckerberg has been on a merry-go-round of stops in US Congress, EU Parliament and press junkets to do damage control.
Recode asked Zuckerberg if he felt that someone should be fired for not thoroughly responding to the Cambridge Analytica situation when Facebook first learned about it in 2015.
After acknowledging that it’s a big issue, Zuckerberg said, “I designed the platform, so if someone’s going to get fired for this, it should be me.”
The 34-year-old CEO has taken responsibility for the company’s failures on this topic before, but the subject of firing himself awkwardly lingers in this interview.
Zuckerberg and Recode jokingly banter about the great news value that would come from him firing himself on this podcast. Alas, he confirms that won’t be happening today.
Recode insists that he’ll probably be OK if he just hung it up right now, and moves on to a question about privacy before Zuckerberg interrupts just to circle back and ask, “Do you really want me to fire myself right now?” After more needling, Recode says, “no” and Zuck drops it, saying, “I think we should do what’s gonna be right for the community.”
This seems like a great idea. Through some chummy insider ribbing, the CEO hit on the idea that he really should maybe go, that he’d be fine if he did, and the most important thing is what’s best for the community.
At this point, it seems all too clear that firing himself would be a good step in doing what’s best for the community of two billion Facebook users, and the larger community of 7.6 billion people just trying to live their lives in this world.
Who knows if Zuck has retained any skills as an engineer, but it’s hard to say he’s been a bad businessman. Facebook’s stock hit an all-time high this month despite its tarnished image because it dug its claws deep into users’ daily lives and it brushes off the consequences of growth.
On my list of potential ways to fix Facebook, shutting it down would be right at the top, closely followed by losing the algorithmic sorting of the news feed. Since neither of those things will happen, Zuckerberg stepping down would be a worthy consolation prize.
Throughout the interview, the CEO demonstrates some of his worst qualities.
For one, he seems incapable of learning from his mistakes. Early in the interview, he pounds on some of his pet peeves and shows that he hasn’t really absorbed or processed criticism.
He still gets really frustrated when people construe Facebook’s model of selling advertisers access to users based on their data and its inferences about that data as “selling data”. He still hasn’t grasped that the line between those two characterisations is extremely thin, and he ignores the fact that “selling data” is a good shorthand for what he’s actually doing and the dark implications it carries.
Zuckerberg also gripes about the characterisation of Facebook as a media company. He says that he used to call it a utility, but today he prefers “social network” over “social media”. He says that “building a network and building relationships is one of the most core things that people do, and that is an enduring utility that people need”.
As always, Zuckerberg speaks about relationships and human contact like a man who’s never experienced either.
He thinks that social networking should be focused on building something “useful and enduring”. That sounds reasonable, but then he gives an example. He says that Facebook has “mapped out all of the people who a person cares about” and then converts its knowledge into a useful product: Facebook Marketplace.
Yup, after almost 15 years of crunching data about billions of people on this planet, the most useful thing Zuck comes up with is a place for everyone to buy more crap.
Moving on to the incredibly volatile subject of Facebook’s platforms being used to incite mob violence and ethnic cleansing in places such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India, Zuckerberg does his best to avoid taking any responsibility for the role his platform might have played.
“It is clearly the responsibility of all of the players who were involved there,” he says. “So, the government, civil society, the different folks who were involved, and I think that we have an important role, given the platform, that we play, so we need to make sure that we do what we need to.”
He’s ignoring the fact that Facebook didn’t do what it needed to do before expanding to markets around the world. He mentions that the company is bringing on more native speakers of languages in problem areas and attempting to better understand local cultures.
“It’s often hard, from where we sit, to identify who are the figures who are promoting hate and what is going to... which is the content that is going to incite violence,” he says, while failing to acknowledge those are the kinds of questions that should’ve been considered before going halfway across the world and providing a platform that can be used to turn whole societies upside down.
On the subject of fake news, he’s still fooling around with moral relativity that isn’t necessary. I sympathise with Zuckerberg’s reluctance to become a censor of speech or the one that determines what news is accurate. But his company makes determinations on what content users will or won’t be allowed on the platform.
Specifically asked about Infowars’ clear spreading of false information with real-world consequences, he still won’t admit that the conspiracy theory-loving outlet could easily be booted from the platform based on its current harassment and bullying policies.
Infowars spread a hoax that the child victims of the Sandy Hook shooting weren’t real and the whole situation was an elaborate plot. That action has resulted in lawsuits by the victims’ parents, who’ve endured years of harassment and accusations of being a “crisis actor”.
The best consequence Zuckerberg can come up with for Infowars if someone uses his platform to confront a victim of Sandy Hook is “telling them, ‘Hey, no, you’re a liar’ — that is harassment, and we actually will take that down”.
This is a simple judgement call — Alex Jones uses his platform to harass people in real life. Mark Zuckerberg can’t see his way to making any kind of judgement about that.
Speaking of bad judgement, he decided to pivot to an example of relative facts by talking about the Holocaust. Here he goes:
I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.
I find that deeply offensive. But 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. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong...
He’s already walked those comments back in a way, clarifying to Recode, “I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”
Despite his hired handlers’ inability to train him how to look normal in public, they’ve done a pretty good job of teaching him the art of the evasive answer.
Whether testifying before Congress or speaking to a journalist, he stays on message for the most part and he gives answers that carry the illusion of complexity but are really just ways of saying that he doesn’t want to deal with his problems in a meaningful way. Facebook’s still growing, people are still addicted to it, the checks are still cashing, so what’s the real issue?
When asked what single thing he would most like to apologise to the public about, he’s at a loss. “I don’t know,” he says bluntly. But then the old PR muscles kick in and he settles on: “I think that the main thing that I’ve tried to internalize this year is we get that there’s a big responsibility and a lot of things that we need to do better than we are.”
If Zuckerberg is serious about his goals of altruistic community building, he should walk away from the company that’s being used to tear communities around the world apart. He says that Bill Gates is his hero, and he knows it’ll take years to build a philanthropic strategy as well-reasoned as the Gates Foundation’s approach. He also says he isn’t taking on any personal goals this year because fixing Facebook is all-consuming at the moment.
Maybe—and stick with me here — this 30-something with some $US80 billion ($108 billion) could give someone else a try in the driver’s seat and totally throw himself into making those Gates-style charity plans. If there’s one upside to Zuckerberg’s youth, he has plenty of time to follow through on his pledge to give away all of his money.