The tech leader wants the social network to help fix everything from polarization to terrorist attacks to how we live together.
Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has connected friends and families across the globe — now he wants to connect, well, everything in a bid to make the world a better place.
That is the 60,000-foot takeaway from a nearly 6,000-word manifesto Zuckerberg published to his Facebook page Thursday. It is an ambitious, wide-ranging, well-intentioned and sometimes naïve declaration, meant to shed light on the giant social network’s next aspirations, extending its next moves far beyond photo albums and celebrity livestreams.
“Today we are close to taking our next step. Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”
Zuckerberg’s goals here obviously go well beyond social networking, which will likely further increase the chatter around his future political ambitions. But in an interview last night, he said that he was fully focused on Facebook and his philanthropic work via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
“I am very happy where I am working from,” said Zuckerberg.
The letter is also a change in direction from Zuckerberg’s initial who-us? shrug following the election, as many blamed fake news and filter bubbles on Facebook for influencing the election results.
“This has been painful for me because I often agree with those criticizing us that we’re making mistakes,” he wrote about the news controversy, as well as errors Facebook has made taking down laudable things like “newsworthy videos related to Black Lives Matter and police violence, and in removing the historical Terror of War photo from Vietnam.”
Still, because Facebook is defined by the always-hew-to-the-middle-road approach of Zuckerberg, he also hedges.
“While we have more work to do on information diversity and misinformation, I am even more focused on the impact of sensationalism and polarization, and the idea of building common understanding,” he wrote.
In other words: Sorry, not sorry (since it’s really just about humans being bad, as they are wont to be).
In the letter, he also said Facebook would lean on artificial intelligence to accomplish some of his goals around safety. That part is likely to attract some criticism, despite his caveats about the company’s commitment to “liberty.” Still, the letter appears to advocate the use of Facebook technology to monitor bad user behavior more aggressively.
“Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach. We are researching systems that can look at photos and videos to flag content our team should review,” wrote Zuckerberg, though he was unspecific. “This is still very early in development, but we have started to have it look at some content, and it already generates about one-third of all reports to the team that reviews content for our community.”
Also of concern to Zuckerberg is the backlash against globalization, which he noted has hurt some, as the idea of connection across the world has become — inexplicably to him — “controversial.”
Wrote Zuckerberg: “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.”
Zuckerberg never names President Donald Trump in the letter, although it sometimes feels like a response to trends that govern our world today that have been unleashed by him. Zuckerberg did acknowledge in the post that his areas of focus are “especially important right now.”
But, in the interview, Zuckerberg said he has been mulling over these ideas for years and that while issues like the backlash to globalization have become more obvious of late, he thinks they are more long-term and global.
This manifesto, which Zuckerberg said in the interview was aimed at his employees first, was framed with a simple, yet overwhelming question at the start:
“On our journey to connect the world, we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: Are we building the world we all want?”
Zuckerberg has already started to answer this question outside of his role as Facebook’s CEO. In late 2015, he and wife, Priscilla Chan, promised to spend nearly all of their wealth on philanthropic efforts, including a recent $3 billion commitment to cure all diseases. At the time, Zuckerberg wrote that his efforts were driven by “a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.”
Now that obligation appears to be steering Facebook’s focus, too.
Zuckerberg’s new letter is broken down into five areas where he believes Facebook can have an impact in the offline world and, in some cases, where it already exists online. His focuses include:
- Building stronger communities, both online and offline.
- Creating better tools for safety and emergency response, both online and offline.
- Surfacing more diverse perspectives around news, and killing what he calls “sensationalism.”
- Creating a more politically engaged society.
- Creating better guidelines for what’s appropriate, and inappropriate, on Facebook.
A number of his visions include the use of artificial intelligence technology to monitor what is happening on Facebook, which should attract some level of scrutiny from privacy advocates. In the letter, Zuckerberg mentioned bullying and harassment and even a suicide that was livestreamed on the Facebook platform — which he said in an interview disturbed him greatly — as the types of things he thinks AI can help prevent.
“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 organization,” he wrote. “This is technically difficult as it requires building AI that can read and understand news, but we need to work on this to help fight terrorism worldwide.”
Facebook as terrorist fighter is likely to be problematic for some. It definitely casts the company in a very different role than that of a benign platform, even though it does in fact hold a bigger role and responsibility than it has sometimes taken onto itself (although it has made some efforts to support anti-extremism messaging in the past).
Despite the apparent goodwill intended, the approach certainly raises some questions around user privacy, highlighting a struggle the tech community is already dealing with.
Still, Zuckerberg pressed on, opting for the safety argument that many welcome. “Looking ahead, one of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand more quickly and accurately what is happening across our community,” he wrote.
Not surprisingly, given the intense focus on it of late by politicians and also other tech companies, Zuckerberg also discussed Facebook’s struggle with what he called “fake news” and “filter bubbles,” defending social media for providing “more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has.”
Still, the fake-news penny seems to have finally dropped for Zuckerberg, who likened it to fighting spam in the letter and in the interview. That said, he remains more conservative about what to do about it, adding that Facebook needs to help people see a “more complete picture” when it comes to news and current events. Zuckerberg argued that simply showing users articles or posts from those with differing opinions isn’t enough.
“Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign,” he wrote. “A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let