Zuckerberg admits social media is broken, needs to be more inclusive and informed

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressing colleagues at the Facebook campus yesterday. Image: Facebook

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In his state of Facebook address, Zuckerberg admits social media is broken and needs centre around building more inclusive and informed communities.

In a 5,800-word essay, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has drafted a new mission statement for the social network.

You could say that 2016 – with the US presidential election’s shock results and allegations of fake news – held up a mirror to what Facebook is becoming. And that Zuckerberg has had something of a rude awakening in the clear light of day.

‘Across the world, there are people left behind by globalisation, and movements for withdrawing from global connection’
– MARK ZUCKERBERG

He created a social network for the people to be used by the people. But somewhere in the construction of a multibillion-dollar revenue machine, the plan went awry.

Its success is obvious in that for most people, the Facebook News Feed is the modern newspaper.

But with all the algorithms and bots whirring about in the machinery, people only saw what they wanted to see, playing on their biases and convictions, making them easy prey for the scourge of fake news.

The biggest indicator that Zuckerberg himself didn’t realise this was happening was that after President Trump’s shock victory in November, he called the idea that Facebook influences people’s opinions “crazy”, despite research showing it as one of the biggest sources of news for the average person.

The episode caused not only a rebellion within Facebook, as engineers with moral compunction spoke out, but clearly a lot of soul-searching. We can only imagine that while Zuckerberg was off trying to save the planet by creating broadband drones, keeping shareholders happy and making an AI for his home, the machine was breaking on the inside.

And 1.8bn people inured to the magic of social media would weigh heavily on anyone’s conscience. It’s a responsibility, and Zuckerberg wants to shoulder it.

Zuckerberg’s ‘New Deal’

In his letter, Zuckerberg said that for the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families.

The next focus will be on developing the social infrastructure for a connected global community.

‘One of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand more quickly and accurately what is happening across our community’
– MARK ZUCKERBERG

There are five elements to the plan: supportive communities, safe communities, informed communities, civically engaged communities and inclusive communities.

In some ways, it is a paean to what Facebook is becoming by itself, a place where communities are coalescing around causes, localities, needs and beliefs. It is becoming a marketplace for goods and services and, very soon, jobs.

Without saying it, Zuckerberg is really trying to tackle the ugly truth: that Facebook, in its openness and transparency, has also become a place that can be manipulated, where the dark sides of human nature can also emerge. The reality is that for all the good in the world that gets reflected on Facebook, the nastiness of racism, xenophobia, crime and more filter through, too.

How does Facebook rein this in without being a censor?

How does Facebook become a platform that amplifies the good and mitigates the bad?

“Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend.

“Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalisation, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more, or reverse course.”

He said that Facebook has helped to strengthen real relationships and that more than 100m people on Facebook are members of what he describes as “very meaningful” groups that transcend physical location.

The key, he admits, is safety.

“The Facebook community is in a unique position to help prevent harm, assist during a crisis or come together to rebuild afterwards. This is because of the amount of communication across our network, our ability to quickly reach people worldwide in an emergency, and the vast scale of people’s intrinsic goodness aggregated across our community.

“Looking ahead, one of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand more quickly and accurately what is happening across our community.

“Going forward, there are even more cases where our community should be able to identify risks related to mental health, disease or crime.”

Amplify the good, mitigate the bad

Zuckerberg tackled the elephant in the room that is fake news, the reign of Trump and the rise of a xenophobic right.

“It is our responsibility to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad; to continue increasing diversity while strengthening our common understanding so our community can create the greatest positive impact on the world.”

‘The starting point for civic engagement in the existing political process is to support voting across in the world’
– MARK ZUCKERBERG

“The best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions – something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do.

“A strong news industry is also critical to building an informed community.

“There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable.”

Zuckerberg pointed out that Facebook could be a platform that could inspire greater civic engagement and tackle the fact that younger people need to vote. The implication of this is that lack of political engagement by young people too lethargic to vote has only led the world to disasters, such as the Trump election and Brexit.

“The starting point for civic engagement in the existing political process is to support voting across in the world.

“Beyond voting, the greatest opportunity is helping people stay engaged with the issues that matter to them every day, not just every few years at the ballot box.”

Crucially, Zuckerberg said that Facebook, as a global community of people, needs community standards that reflect collective values for what should and should not be allowed.

So where does the advance of technology meet the cultural norms of people with morals?

Zuckerberg admitted that technology has limitations. “It’s worth noting that major advances in AI are required to understand text, photos and videos to judge whether they contain hate speech, graphic violence, sexually explicit content and more.

“We hope to begin handling some of these cases in 2017, but others will not be possible for many years.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com