The New Gatekeepers

‘We didn’t spend enough time thinking about the risks,’ Zuckerberg admits

April 2, 2018

When Mark Zuckerberg talks about something that has gone wrong at Facebook—which happens rather frequently—he almost always comes off as concerned and apologetic, and his latest interview on Vox Media’s “The Ezra Klein Show” on Friday, March 30th (a transcript of which was published this morning) is no exception. But anyone who has been following Facebook for any length of time probably feels a sense of déjà vu, because it all sounds very familiar: We screwed up, we’re sorry, we didn’t know, we will fix it. Zuckerberg tells Klein:

We’re in the middle of a lot of issues, and I certainly think we could’ve done a better job so far. I’m optimistic that we’re going to address a lot of those challenges, and that we’ll get through this, and that when you look back five years from now, 10 years from now, people will look at the net effect of being able to connect online and have a voice and share what matters to them as just a massively positive thing in the world.

To be fair, no one has ever run a globe-spanning social network that has over two billion daily users before, so perhaps we should forgive Zuckerberg for not being perfect at it. But it seems disingenuous to have spent 14 years building a company that now has $40 billion in revenue, and at the same time to claim it never occurred to anyone such a giant social network—especially one powered by surveillance of its users—could become a tool for deception. Again, Zuckerberg:

When we started, we thought about how good it would be if people could connect, if everyone had a voice. Frankly, we didn’t spend enough time investing in, or thinking through, some of the downside uses of the tools. So for the first 10 years of the company, everyone was just focused on the positive. I think now people are appropriately focused on some of the risks and downsides as well.

What this means in practice is that Facebook has been doing its best to ignore the repeated warnings from researchers such as danah boyd (who spells her name using only lower-case letters) and Zeynep Tufekci of the dangers inherent in Facebook’s structure and business model. And why wouldn’t it try hard to ignore that sort of thing? Some of those concerns go straight to the heart of how the company makes the billions of dollars a year. Zuckerberg alone now has a net worth of $62 billion.

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Tellingly enough, one of the points during the interview where Zuckerberg seems to become genuinely peeved is when Klein mentions Apple CEO Tim Cook’s criticisms of the company’s advertising-based model. The Facebook CEO says the idea that, “If you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you,” is “not at all aligned with the truth.” And he suggests consumers should question comments made by companies that “work hard to charge you more” for their services, as opposed to someone like him, who is trying to provide something for free.

Zuckerberg also tells Klein that Facebook is considering a court-style model to decide what kinds of speech should be allowed. “You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech,” he says. A sensible idea, or a frightening glimpse of a potential future in which Facebook is a global censor? As usual with Facebook, it’s a little bit of both.

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Update: An earlier version of this story said Ezra Klein’s interview was done for Vox Media, but the post has been clarified to note that it was on a Vox Media podcast called “The Ezra Klein Show.”

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.