In what must surely be the least surprising news of the week, the founder of the world’s largest social media company has written a blog post arguing that social media is good, rather than bad. In other news, fish swim in the sea and my cat’s breath smells like cat food.
Seriously though, the fact that Mark Zuckerberg feels the need to write a lengthy defense of social media is testimony both to the importance it has assumed in our society, and the level of scrutiny is has attracted as a result.
From a fun way to share cat pictures and see what your friends are up to, social media – and Facebook in particular – has morphed into an all-encompassing leviathan, delivering news, facilitating revolutions, connecting businesses, and enabling government surveillance.
So the stakes are high, as more and more people wonder whether social media is a net positive for society.
Zuckerberg clearly realizes this, and in his 5,700-word essay he does a fair job presenting the case for social media as a transformative phenomenon that can improve the lives of people around the world – but as he also notes, there are some emerging rules of the road that we all need to follow to make it work.
At the outset Zuckerberg frames Facebook as part of the next step in the evolution of human society, as a medium that will bring together people around the world in a truly global community.
However, as he notes the last few years have seen the emergence of powerful forces pulling in the other direction: “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.”
While acknowledging these challenging circumstances, Zuckerberg still believes that Facebook is part of the solution:
“In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”
Towards that end, he advocates Facebook as a potential means of strengthening, rather than undermining, traditional institutions for social engagement at the local level, naming examples like “churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups.”
At the same time it can create new communities by bringing together people in similar circumstances around the world; here he cited the example of people suffering from rare diseases, who would previously have had to face the challenge alone, but can now find support groups.
Zuckerberg also outlined ways Facebook is already addressing negative or even criminal behaviors, for example by displaying Amber Alerts at the local or regional level when a child is kidnapped, or with its Safety Check feature, which allows people to let others know they’re okay after a disaster.
Other examples include crowdfunding disaster relief and blood donations from across the country after the Orlando night club shooting. Looking ahead, he said Facebook can use AI to help identify early signs of mental illness and prevent suicide by enabling early intervention. However he also conceded that Facebook needs to “do more” to prevent behaviors like online bullying and harassment, and again pointed to the potential of AI to uncover patterns and respond more rapidly.
The post also addresses concerns about social media’s role in spreading “fake news” and creating “filter bubbles,” as well as what Zuckerberg identifies as the dangers of sensationalism and polarization of public opinion.
Here, the challenge is to restore coherence without sacrificing diversity of views, he writes, asserting “our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives.”
"Since the line between fake news and opinion can be fuzzy, Facebook will take the tack of presenting more views, rather than fewer: “Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item's accuracy.”
Zuckerberg also sees a role for Facebook in spurring civic engagement, most notably participation in democratic government.
Here he notes that “In the United States election last year, we helped more than 2 million people register to vote and then go vote. This was among the largest voter turnout efforts in history, and larger than those of both major parties combined.”
Facebook can also enable greater government transparency, by allowing officials to share the details of their decisions and seek feedback, and is introducing new tools that make it easier for users to communicate with their elected representatives.While Zuckerberg presents a positive, and plausible, vision for Facebook helping improve the world in a number of ways, it’s also worth noting some topics he omitted – especially as they pertain to the social network itself.
For one thing, he makes no mention of growing concern that social media may have addictive qualities for some users, or the apparent correlation of heavy social media usage with some serious psychological problems, including depression and body image issues.
In setting out to build a better world, it might be helpful to acknowledge that social media itself is not an unalloyed good, and may actually be harmful for some users.