EYEBROWS were raised a little by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s unexpected (and extremely lengthy) personal manifesto which he released last week.
As one of the most influential men on the planet, tech watchers, business leaders and social innovators pored over his words with great interest – with a number of editorials subsequently expressing a little unease with his words.
In short, “Who watches the watchers?” was a common reaction, with some raising the oft-mooted point that it’s all very well for Zuckerberg/Facebook to talk about building a better world but, well, who said it’s a social media company’s place to do so?
And who, ultimately, controls what Facebook deigns to be acceptable, right or suitable?
Take, as just one example of several interesting points Zuckerberg raises, the following paragraph:
“Right now, we’re starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda so we can quickly remove anyone trying to use our services to recruit for a terrorist organisation.”
Nobody’s going to shed a tear that there’s, say, one less ISIS-influenced page or comment thread in the world, or if a wide range of anti-(insert your poison) pages are shut down or blocked by Facebook.
However, digging deeper, the issue of what constitutes a terrorist group or terrorism becomes murkier – several conflicts currently rage around the world where different groups label ‘the other side’ as terrorists, yet said groups brand themselves as, say, freedom fighters, and may enjoy local or even international political support to a degree.
In which case, how is Facebook, whether via AI algorithms or human judgement, making a call on the more complex issues of either facilitating, moderating or blocking such polarised views?
From China to Turkey to Syria, and to other authoritarian countries, a disparate range of groups exist which have been branded by the local authorities as terrorists, yet which aren’t necessarily recognised as such by other countries.
Should a global corporation whose raison d’etre is to make money have the power, or mission goal, to control contentious information about such groups, notwithstanding that it’s providing the platform to do so?
These are just a few of the questions raised by part of the general thrust of Zuckerberg’s words, with several others in a similar bent – generally questioning Facebook’s increasing role as a global platform – arising from his undoubtedly well-intentioned words.
Nobody is saying that Facebook is connected to facilitating terrorist views or repressive actions – of course not.
For the vast majority of its user base, Facebook is just a social media platform, and any ‘higher questions’ regarding content and control are irrelevant when you’re just checking pics from last night out in Copper’s, checking how sis is in Sydney, or seeing some funny memes.
However, in a world where social media is as ordinary and commonplace for billions of people as sliced bread, clean water, or heat and light at the flick of a switch, Facebook’s ubiquitous presence gives it an increasing power which can drive or direct a great deal of political and societal change, both directly and indirectly.
As Zuckerberg points out repeatedly and fairly throughout his writing, Facebook can be a positive force for change, and has indeed been instrumental in a great many positive actions.
From coordinating charity work to providing insights into the works of NGOs, and from helping to provide life-changing information to life-saving fundraising (as many Irish citizens can attest), Facebook has provided a key platform for change, for which many are thankful.
But when a single corporation ends up with access to almost one in three people on the planet, and its boss starts writing extensively about the company’s purpose, it’s fair that a wide variety of people pay closer attention to its overall plans and direction – and as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Whether or not you agree with the Facebook founder’s every word and point, it’s well worth looking up his lengthy piece for an insight straight from the boss about where the company may be going, and what its user base – you – means to the man at the top.