"Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community."
Mark Zuckerberg is a name on everyone's lips this week, dominating column inches and social media discourse. The Facebook tycoon has served notice in his latest manifesto article that he intends to pursue a path towards media domination and political entryism at a time when America in particular is at a crossroads unimagined just twelve months ago and, it might be argued, in need of inspiration.
"Are we building the world we want?" is the directive of last Thursday's 5,700-word post that was quickly described as his 'manifesto'. His outspoken defence of globalisation flies in the face at a time when Trump and Brexit-led 'populism' is for many, a thinly-disguised rebuke against the neoliberal values and political correctness that have dominated recent decades. What reads as a seemingly benign rhetoric centred around Facebook's development of "the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us" contains what some see as coded response to the direction of traffic, a current that might be argued to be threatening to Facebook's relentless monopoly-style power. Of course Zuckerberg sees the bigger global picture, especially after investing in free philanthropic internet access (although strictly limited and with Facebook at its core) via its internet.org initiative.
Adrianne Lafrance in The Atlantic suggests that "Zuckerberg uses abstract language in his memo—he wants Facebook to develop “the social infrastructure for community,” he writes—but what he’s really describing is building a media company with classic journalistic goals: The Facebook of the future, he writes, will be “for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
“Research suggests reading local news is directly correlated with local civic engagement,” he writes in his manifesto. “This shows how building an informed community, supportive local communities, and a civically-engaged community are all related.”
"Whilst Zuckerberg lays out concrete ideas about how to build community on Facebook, how to encourage civic engagement, and how to improve the quality and inclusiveness of discourse, he bakes in an assumption that news, which has always been subsidised by the advertising dollars his company now commands, will continue to feed into Facebook’s system at little to no cost to Facebook."
It is clear that through Facebook's algorithmic filtration of what we see, it changes the way we consume news and think. It's more than that - it's arguably the most effective surveillance machine in the world, but one led by the maximisation of profits and one that wants to be a global political leader. Zuckerberg is promising that "our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more". With the profit motive still at the core of Facebook's rationale, it can be argued that there is very little that is organic or "natural" about any editorial selection process and Facebook must be held to account to make its algorithms transparent.
As for Zuckerberg's own aspirations for political entryism, it's clear that the boundaries ebtween business and politics are blurring - one look at the dubious appointments of Trump's band of merry men highlights the cronyism that is now at the very forefront of a lobbying-dominated world seemingly in rapid regression from recent perceived steps forward. The Facebook titan reminds us that "in recent campaigns around the world, we've seen the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins" so what are odds of an unassaiable mandate were Zuckerberg himself to run for highest office in the near future.
Anne McElvoy in The Guardian assesses where the next political wave might come from "It is perfectly possible that the next generation of serious political challengers to populism will come from or via media tech companies. They have the money and means of communication to mount a challenge. They will, however, succeed only if they can acquire the self-knowledge and restraint needed to curb egomania – and avoid annoying the electorate even more than the party-machine candidates who are taking a beating in the US and Europe...Traditional campaigners for “media pluralism” focus inordinately on newspapers, and far too little on Facebook, Google and Apple. All of these offer ways for more people to see quality content. But their growing dominance in advertising and user numbers opens up a question Zuckerberg (and his peers) need to grapple with. Where does public-interest journalism figure in their model and what is their view on how to support it?
Lafrance, in her Atlantic article summarises :
"You can see how Zuckerberg is continuing to push Facebook’s hands-off approach to editorial responsibility. Facebook is outsourcing its decision-making power about what’s in your News Feed. Instead of the way a newspaper editor decides what’s on the front page, the user will decide. The most cynical way to describe this set-up is to say that Facebook is asking its users to act as unpaid publishers and curators of content—posting baby photos, Facebook Live broadcasts from newsworthy events, and links to news stories by publications desperate for Facebook traffic—and now also to act as unpaid editors, volunteering to teach Facebook’s algorithmic editors how and when to surface the content Facebook does not pay for.
In other words, Facebook is building a global newsroom run by robot editors and its own readers."
Carol Cadwalladr, in today's Observer poses a question about perceptions and how different they might be if the curly-haired golden boy wasn't born in White Plains, New York but in Smolensk, Russia and how the western might be reacting.
"Where does that power end? Who holds it to account? What are the limits on it? Because the answer is there are none. Facebook’s power and dominance, its knowledge of every aspect of its users’ intimate lives, its ability to manipulate their – our – world view, its limitless ability to generate cash, is already beyond the reach of any government. He is wrestling with the question of how Facebook can change the world. Whereas the question is: do we actually want Facebook to change the world? Do we want any corporation to have so much unchecked power?"