Last week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a 6000-word manifesto on how the company aims to change the way civic society operates around the world. Depending on your personal sentiments, it's an inspiring or disturbing message; either way, it is worth a read.
Facebook’s vision for a global social infrastructure
The manifesto outlines Zuckerberg’s hope and belief that Facebook can ‘develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us’:
As we've made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations, we have always had to build social infrastructure like communities, media and governments for us to thrive and reach the next level. At each step we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone. We have done it before and we will do it again.
As Ezra Klein describes, Zuckerberg’s vision is of a quasi-religious, supranational organising structure that seeks to create and enrich global connections in a time when those connections appear to be under threat. But though Zuckerberg frames his manifesto as being about how Facebook plans to change the world, it’s also important to frame it as being about how Facebook plans to change its product.
Zuckerberg’s vision is perhaps driven by conviction, but a cynic might argue it's the vision of someone searching for future avenues of growth. The company continues to grow its user base at an impressive rate: 72 million monthly active users were added last quarter, for a total of 1.86 billion. But revenue per user growth is slowing – of those 72 million, only two million were from the US and Canada (where the average revenue per user is around $20), whereas 44 million were from the Asia Pacific (where the average revenue per user is around $2).
There are still billions of people on the planet for Facebook to connect with. But it is increasingly tempting for Facebook to deepen connections with its existing users and further entrench the service in their lives. Attempting to supplant Google’s YouTube as the internet’s premier video service (and fudging the numbers along the way) is one example of Facebook cashing in on its existing users. Extending Facebook’s purpose from connecting friends, family and acquaintances (people who have met in real life) to connecting civic and interest-based communities (people who have not) is another:
More than one billion people are active members of Facebook groups, but most don't seek out groups on their own – friends send invites or Facebook suggests them. If we can improve our suggestions and help connect one billion people with meaningful communities, that can strengthen our social fabric.
Whether it is an ideological vision or a corporate strategy (or both), Zuckerberg’s manifesto accepts that creating this new supranational layer of social infrastructure requires shouldering a much greater level of civic responsibility. Yet given Facebook’s track record, Zuckerberg is somewhat unconvincing on this point. Facebook has in the past displayed a selective attitude towards civic duty. Along with a suite of tech competitors, it succeeded in disrupting out of existence hundreds of local and metro newspapers in the US alone. Perhaps those outlets should have innovated better; perhaps they were doomed from the start. Either way, those newspapers and the specific civic function they provided to their communities have ceased to exist, without a clear replacement.
After years of Zuckerberg proclaiming Facebook to be a ‘tech company, not a media company’, the other shoe finally appears to have dropped. In January Facebook launched the Journalism Project, eight years after 2009’s huge drop in newspaper circulation and newspaper advertising revenue that marked the beginning of the end for many outlets. The mission ostensibly aims to train journalists in using Facebook products, develop entirely new products for journalists to use, generally improve public media literacy, and explore ‘what we can build together with our partners to support local news and promote independent media’. Zuckerberg is vague on what exactly the focus on ‘growing local news’ will entail, but it is positive to see the organisation finally recognising and attempting to address the consequences of its ascent.
Likewise, Zuckerberg appears to now consider the issue of ‘fake news’ (specifically, what the term referred to in December and not its more nebulous contemporary usage) and ‘filter bubbles’ as pressing concerns. He argues the somewhat contentious point that despite these new trends, social media ‘already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has’ due to the variety of beliefs found among one’s connections on Facebook. Zuckerberg then outlines a prospective civic norm for his new social infrastructure:
Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign. A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.
What Facebook decides to include in a ‘spectrum’ and a ‘complete range of perspectives’ (essentially a form of the Overton Window or Hallin’s sphere of legitimate controversy) will be a difficult question for Facebook to answer. How will Facebook determine what should be included in the ‘complete range’ of perspectives? US President Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban? How about the arguments of resurgent white nationalists? Creating a global social infrastructure that can acknowledge the existence of what Facebook and Zuckerberg himself would consider deviant opinions and safely exposing them to users as part of a spectrum will not be an easy task. Pretending they don’t exist and hoping for their eventual death would be merely a continuation of the failing status quo.
The global response
Facebook may create this structure of global social governance with the counsel of the governed, but as a private company it cannot do so with their consent. Users could, of course, show their disapproval of the project by opting out of the service, but given Facebook’s monopoly such a decision is less a discrete consumer preference and more a potentially costly lifestyle choice.
The question the international community (which includes nations that don't officially allow their citizens to use Facebook) must ask is whether it is acceptable to have a private service provider ultimately beholden to its shareholders be responsible for instituting and regulating an entirely new layer of global social infrastructure. And even if one considers this manifesto benevolent or at least benign, there is still reason to be wary of any Zuckerbergian plan for the future – as Leonid Bershidsky aptly points out, Facebook has failed to achieve previous self-ascribed goals of improving the human condition. There is definitely room for scepticism.
The vanguard of global efforts to regulate Facebook (along with Google) is unquestionably the European Union. EU regulators have chased the company over antitrust and privacy laws, and in 2016 the then-President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz outlined what he believed was needed to ensure the European people best benefited from digitisation:
All questions which have a bearing on regulation in the digital age are questions of power. There is much at stake: huge amounts of money, the power to impose standards and procedures, the ability to safeguard pluralism, alternative ways of thinking and personal autonomy…The task of politicians and civil society is to ensure that not just the happy few benefit from the digital revolution, but that as many people as possible benefit.
In the time since Schulz’s speech, the task he refers to takes on another dimension: how should politics and civil society preserve itself for the benefit of the people when one of the world’s leading forces of digitisation proclaims its intention to entirely restructure how civil societies function (and, one way or the other, get them to pay rent)?
Zuckerberg’s manifesto makes it clear that any global oversight of Facebook’s activities would not be the mere regulation of a service provider, but the regulation of a monolithic privatised social infrastructure. Zuckerberg argues that ‘Bringing us all together as a global community is a project bigger than any one organization or company, but Facebook can help contribute’. But Facebook’s size, structure and clout renders means it could do a heck of a lot on its own.
There’s no doubt that contemporary civil society is in some strife, and Facebook could potentially play a role in rectifying the situation. But as I’ve argued before, there’s no reason to have faith it will all work out and leave Facebook to its mission. Facebook is transforming into a global, monopolistic utility. It’s time for the world to treat it like one.