Who – or what – is Mark Zuckerberg? Obviously he’s the founder and CEO of Facebook, which is, in theory, a public company but is in fact his fiefdom, as a casual inspection of the company’s SEC filings confirms. They show that his ownership of the controlling shares means that he can do anything he likes, including selling the company against the wishes of all the other shareholders combined.
But the fact that Zuck wields autocratic power over a huge corporation doesn’t quite get the measure of him. A better metaphor is that he is the Dr Frankenstein de nos jours. Readers of Mary Shelley’s great 19th-century novel will know the story: of how an ingenious scientist – Dr Victor Frankenstein – creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Repulsed by the monster he has made, Frankenstein flees, but finds that he cannot escape his creation. In the end, Frankenstein dies of exposure in the Arctic, pursuing the monster who has murdered his bride. We never learn what happened to the creature.
Facebook is Zuckerberg’s monster. Unlike Frankenstein, he is still enamoured of his creation, which has made him richer than Croesus and the undisputed ruler of an empire of 2.2 billion users. It has also given him a great deal of power, together with the responsibilities that go with it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that his creature is out of control, that he’s uneasy about the power and has few good ideas about how to discharge his responsibilities.
This all became evident last week in a revealing interview the Facebook boss gave to the tech journalist Kara Swisher. The conversation covered a lot of ground but included a few key exchanges that spoke volumes about Zuckerberg’s inability to grasp the scale of the problems that his creature now poses for society.
One of them – obviously – is misinformation or “false news”. “The approach that we’ve taken to false news,” said Zuck, “is not to say you can’t say something wrong on the internet. I think that that would be too extreme. Everyone gets things wrong and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that.”
Swisher then asked him about the alt-right site InfoWars, whose Facebook page has more than 900,000 followers and which regularly broadcasts falsehoods and conspiracy theories, including a claim that the Sandy Hook mass shootings never happened. But InfoWars continues to thrive on Facebook, even though Zuckerberg agreed that the Sandy Hook story was false.
Is this because “everyone gets things wrong” or because of those 900,000 followers? Swisher didn’t ask, but a stunning Channel 4 undercover investigation of the Dublin firm to which Facebook has outsourced “content moderation” suggested that objectionable content on Facebook pages with large followings cannot be deleted by the traumatised serfs in Dublin; instead, the decision has to be referred up the management chain.
The most revealing part of the Swisher interview, however, concerned Holocaust denial, a topic that Zuckerberg himself brought up. “I’m Jewish,” he said, “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, but I think it’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
If you think this is weird, then join the club. I can see only three explanations for it. One is that Zuckerberg is a sociopath, who wants to have as much content – objectionable or banal – available to maximise user engagement (and therefore revenues), regardless of the societal consequences. A second is that Facebook is now so large that he sees himself as a kind of governor with quasi-constitutional responsibilities for protecting free speech. This is delusional: Facebook is a company, not a democracy. Or third – and most probably – he is scared witless of being accused of being “biased” in the polarised hysteria that now grips American (and indeed British) politics.
It’s as if he’s suddenly become aware of the power that his monster has bestowed upon him. As the New York Times journalist Kevin Roose put it on the paper’s The Daily podcast, Zuckerberg’s increasingly erratic behaviour could be a symptom of something bigger. “He built a company that swallowed communication and media for much of the world. And now we’re seeing him back away from that… the problem with ruling the world is that you then have to govern and that’s not what it seems he wants to do.”
What I’m reading
How e-commerce Is Transforming Rural China
Fascinating New Yorker account of what’s happening in parts of China none of us has ever heard of.
The Productivity Gain: Where Is it Coming From and Where Is it Going to?
A wonderfully lucid explanation on his own website by MIT’s Rodney Brooks,
who is both a world leader in an arcane field (robotics) and a terrific communicator. Includes the best explanation of “digitalisation” (as opposed to “digitisation”) that I’ve come across.
With Greed and Cynicism, Big Tech Is Fuelling Inequalities in America
The title of a sharp critique on the Monday Note site by the astute French commentator Frederic Filloux of how tech companies are essentially engines of inequality.