The New Gatekeepers

Facebook admits connecting the world isn’t always a good thing

March 16, 2018

Image via Pixabay

One of the defining tenets of Facebook’s corporate philosophy is to connect people around the world, both to each other and to issues that matter to them. Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the social network’s mission is “to give people the power to share and to make the world more open and connected.”

Lately, however, the company finally seems prepared to admit that doing this doesn’t always produce a world of sunshine and rainbows.

The United Nations criticized the company this week for its role in distributing fake news and misinformation about the persecuted Rohingya people in Myanmar, who have been driven from their homes, attacked, and, in some cases, killed. In an interview on Slate’s If Then podcast, Adam Mosseri—the Facebook executive in charge of the News Feed—bluntly admitted that this is a serious problem.

Connecting the world isn’t always going to be a good thing. Sometimes it’s also going to have negative consequences. The most concerning and severe negative consequences of any platform potentially would be real-world harm. So what’s happening on the ground in Myanmar is deeply concerning in a lot of different ways. It’s also challenging for us for a number of reasons.

Mosseri went on to say that Facebook is thinking long and hard about how to solve this kind of problem. “We lose some sleep over this,” he said. Which is encouraging, because it has to be at least a little disturbing to find that the tool you created to connect the world so people could share baby photos is being used to spread conspiracy theories that encourage violence against an already persecuted minority.

For more background on how Facebook came to play this role in Myanmar, and the challenges that it faces, please see my recent piece in CJR, in which I talked to reporters who work in the region about the social network’s role in the violence there.

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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.