Dear Mark Zuckerberg, fix Facebook before you take on society’s problems

9 Jan 2019

La Repubblica during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Image: ifeelstock/Depositphotos

2018 was an unimaginably horrible year for Facebook. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to put things right in 2019, he needs to look at his company first, writes John Kennedy.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to put things right and, in his state-of-the-union address for the 2.2bn people that use Facebook (a solid chunk of the Earth’s population), he said he wants to fix the problems tech poses in society as part of his New Year’s resolutions.

First, he needs to fix Facebook, because the way things are going, it is only going to become a holding company for the increasingly more popular apps in its stable, Instagram and WhatsApp.

‘I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the trade-offs we face and where we want to go’

2018 revealed that the social network Zuckerberg forged in a Harvard dorm room 15 years ago has feet of clay. Instead of being a sophisticated outlier for the future of business, we got a glimpse of a befuddled management team and an out-of-control technology juggernaut with no one at the wheel.

Initially, we were aghast at its inability to grasp its role in the ‘fake news’ epidemic and how the social network appeared to be gamed in the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum of the same year.

Our fears were confirmed when the whole Cambridge Analytica affair unfolded in March, revealing that gamifying elections using apps to assuage the whims of well-heeled suits in Washington and London by tampering in elections across the world was indeed big business. If you were cynical about life before this, then buckle your safety belt.

The tawdry aspect of the situation was exposed by newspapers The New York Times and The Guardian – ironically organs of the very media whose business case the Facebook and Google industrial complex has hoovered up and undermined – as well as a Channel 4 undercover investigation that exposed a content moderation scandal right here in Dublin. If these very stories don’t stress the need for a free and well-funded media defending people in society, I don’t know what else will.

If you weren’t already seething, security bugs, breaches and PR stunts such as ‘war rooms’ went on to characterise the rest of the year for Facebook, and an internal blame game increased in velocity.

The sight of Zuckerberg answering basic internet questions for out-of-touch senators or refusing to appear before a UK House of Commons select committee only added to the drama and foreboding sense of chaos.

Answer the big questions, but no more trade-offs

Alas, it seems that Zuckerberg is still trying to answer the big questions about tech and society when really what he needs to do is get his own house in order.

“My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society – the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes and the anxieties,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts and people in our community from different fields, and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages, or on other media.

“This will be intellectually interesting, but there’s a personal challenge for me here, too. I’m an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they’d mostly speak for themselves. But, given the importance of what we do, that doesn’t cut it any more. So I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the trade-offs we face and where we want to go.”

I don’t doubt Zuckerberg’s fascination with the intellectually interesting part of the challenge and his willingness to allow cameras into his ivory tower. But real lives are being affected in real time by the consequences of the many holes that are being found in Facebook. And Facebook no longer looks like the dynamic, mould-breaker it once was. Far from it.

“Anxieties” and “trade-offs” are probably the most poignant words in that statement because we have all been made anxious by the Facebook drama. Like kids offered free candy, we signed up and poured out our thoughts and feelings to the question, ‘What’s on your mind?’ We shared our photos and vignettes of our lives that may seem small to the glittering, overpaid elites in Silicon Valley. Little did we know that what’s on our minds would become big business for programmatic advertising, and that the ever-lurking suspicion that our minds can be potentially turned to suit the dastardly whims of wealthy moguls would grow.

Our fears in 2019, Mark, are really about how our data can be sold on to middlemen without our consent, or that bugs in the software could lead to the most innocent web user getting conned in an elaborate cyber scam. There is no luxury of an intellectual challenge, there is only the here and now.

Our fears in 2019 include dealing with the fallout of the folly that is Brexit or how American government workers have been forced to the breadline as a childish Trump demands his stupid wall. These are the supposed consequences of the role that Cambridge Analytica, ‘fake news’, Russian hacking and more may have played in elections that took place almost three years ago.

We shouldn’t feel anxious about using the platform you created. There should be no trade-offs if our very presence on that platform makes you and your friends rich. Privacy is a right, not a virtue. Facebook may be free to use, but we are not your product.

Dear Mark, if you really and truly care about the role of tech in society, fix Facebook first.

La Repubblica during Cambridge Analytica scandal. Image: ifeelstock/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years