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Facebook’s desperation to survive could bring about its demise

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg

Social media giant Facebook is so desperate to get out of the doghouse it seems likely to police speech on the platform to a self-defeating extent.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is going to testify in front of a bunch of stern politicians soon and CNBC got hold of his prepared introduction, which he will read out before the main interrogation commences. Some of his comments indicate a willingness to significantly increase editorial control over everything posted on the site.

“Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company,” Zuck will say. “For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring.” Already he is signalling a desire to qualitatively censor – to favour ‘good’ over ‘bad’ – and cites #metoo and March for Our Lives as things he’s pleased his platform facilitated, thus inferring those causes are good.

This is dangerous territory. Zuck seems to have decided to pick a team on some polarising, subjective, emotive topics. As well as being overtly censorious this also makes questionable business sense as that policy is likely to alienate large numbers of people whose position doesn’t align with the views Facebook has determined to be good.

Having congratulated himself for bringing about good, Zuck will go on to express regret for letting some bad things slip through the net. “But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” he will lament. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

Most of the rest of the speech will cover Cambridge Analytica and Russian mischief, presumably because he figures that’s the sort of stuff politicians will be most concerned by. A lot of what he will say about that stuff is pretty sensible but also a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. ‘You know all that stuff you’re pissed off about? It’s gone,’ he will effectively say.

But the unaddressed elephant in the room will be ‘hate speech’. There is no section of his speech that elaborates on remedial measures Facebook intends to take to tackle that most vague and subjective of bad things, but he will offer one further clue. “It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive,” Zuck will proclaim, positively.

For the first decade or so of their existence the whole point of social media platforms was that they exercised no editorial control over what was published on them, with the exception of things that broke existing laws. Things like Cambridge Analytica have put all social media under the spotlight and probably made it impossible for them to maintain they have no responsibility for what they allow to be put into the public domain.

There have been many calls for them to be treated as publishers but that doesn’t seem viable. The scale an immediacy of social media means there’s no way content can be moderated before publication and even to do so afterwards would require even a literal army of moderators or the use of algorithms that have shown little ability to accommodate nuance and context to date.

A possible middle position between message-board and publisher could be ‘curator’ as discussed on the most recent Telecoms.com podcast. This would be a novel new legal designation that would attempt to map out and clarify the responsibilities of an online platform, regarding quality control, malevolent actors, etc. But finding the ideal balance between freedom and security and somehow trying to remove human subjectivity from the process will be very difficult.

Zuckerberg has consistently shown how much he resents being forced to spend money on quality control for his zillion dollar asset. “I’ve directed our teams to invest so much in security – on top of the other investments we’re making – that it will significantly impact our profitability going forward,” he will say. “But I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.”

Pretty much every time Zuck talks about investing in quality control he throws in the pouty caveat that it will hit profits. The point is so redundant that it’s not clear why he does it, but the message is clear: if our numbers go down the toilet don’t come crying to me. To then insist all he cares about is ‘protecting our community’ seems just plain disingenuous.

The real reason Facebook’s share price is still significantly lower than it was a month ago is that its overheads, in the form of security software, moderators and more sophisticated editorial algorithms, are going to be significantly higher from now on. But Facebook’s product is its users and if it ends up alienating a big chunk of them by imposing the world view of its founder on them, smaller margins could be the least of its problems.


One comment

  1. Anand 13/04/2018 @ 8:59 am

    Already deleted my facebook account. Not only data security is breached on facebook, the social media site thinks it has a big right to police what we post. You simply can’t criticize anyone. They block you out for days or weeks based on their own discrition without even listening to your side. It is a dictatorship that they run on their website.

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