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Mark Zuckerberg Takes on His Facebook Frankenstein Monster

The past two years have shattered Mark Zuckerberg’s faith in social media, or humanity, or both.

At least, that’s one of the primary takeaways from Wired magazine’s feature [1] last week on Facebook and fake news, written by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein. In it, Thompson and Vogelstein consider Facebook’s many slip-ups and struggles in publishing and curating news stories over the past two years—from allegedly disfavoring conservative coverage to allowing Russian bots to influence news feeds during the 2016 presidential election.

Throughout the story, one theme remains strong: Facebook’s employees and CEO are only now beginning to understand their responsibility to the world and the dangerous power of the platform they’ve created. Zuckerberg, like many in our enlightened and progressive age, believes in human perfectibility. He believes in circumstantial error, not sin. He believes (or at least believed) in humankind’s ability to craft the perfect scenarios and platforms in which to break down all malice and misunderstanding, while not necessarily believing that evil is endemic to the human condition.

Which means that, when Facebook came under fire for the spread of misinformation and fake news in early 2017, he didn’t respond by noting the flaws of his global empire or in its users; he doubled down on the hopeful perfectibility of his platform and its users:

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Amid sweeping remarks about “building a global community,” [Zuckerberg] emphasized the need to keep people informed and to knock out false news and clickbait. Brown and others at Facebook saw the manifesto as a sign that Zuckerberg understood the company’s profound civic responsibilities. Others saw the document as blandly grandiose, showcasing Zuckerberg’s tendency to suggest that the answer to nearly any problem is for people to use Facebook more.

Of course, Zuckerberg’s hopes for his creation are understandable—none of us want to acknowledge the inherent flaws in something we’ve dedicated our lives to curating and crafting. And it’s understandable—even laudable, in a way—that Zuckerberg would refuse to let the confusion and vitriol of the 2016 general election impact his faith in humanity.

But Facebook-as-global-community isn’t working. Since creating the social media network, Zuckerberg has always emphasized his hope that it would foster greater empathy and understanding around the world: that it would enable us to understand each other better, to bridge racial and partisan divides, and to instill our interactions with greater temperance.

Instead, the opposite has happened: Facebook, via human choice and algorithmic tendency, has fostered ideological and political bubbles amongst its users, not global community and rapport. We join groups filled with like-minded people, like pages that give us the news we want to hear, unfollow or unfriend those who annoy us or make us uncomfortable. Based on the posts we spend the most time liking, commenting, and watching, Facebook gives us more of the same, rather than encouraging us to expand our ideological repertoires.

These tendencies are extremely difficult to circumvent. We can follow accounts that challenge our beliefs, keep listening to the friends who annoy us (and engage them via comments and messages when we find it appropriate)—but there remains a degree of disconnection between us and this virtual content. That disconnection makes it easy to tune out, or to respond with more anger or bombast than we might employ in personal conversation. Additionally, we too often indulge in clickbait on Facebook or other online sites rather than forcing ourselves to absorb more thoughtful, well-crafted content. Facebook’s algorithm recognizes this tendency—and passively fosters it. Thompson and Vogelstein write:

People like Alex Hardiman, the head of Facebook news products and an alum of The New York Times, started to recognize that Facebook had long helped to create an economic system that rewarded publishers for sensationalism, not accuracy or depth. “If we just reward content based on raw clicks and engagement, we might actually see content that is increasingly sensationalist, clickbaity, polarizing, and divisive,” she says. A social network that rewards only clicks, not subscriptions, is like a dating service that encourages one-night stands but not marriages.

To some extent, Facebook cannot control or circumvent this tendency. It is the result of our sinful natures, our ability to shape a product according to our own flawed image. Facebook isn’t innocent in the way it curates and shapes our news feeds, but its creators and curators will always find it hard to balance between excess and defect in their attempts to foster a virtuous online community. Do too much, and they risk playing an alarmingly intrusive role in people’s lives and mental formation. Do too little, and they encourage an anarchic atmosphere of disinformation, vitriol, and offensive content.

Besides, many will ask (and rightfully so) what right Facebook has to determine what is and isn’t propagated on its site. It is meant to be a platform for connection, not a social policeman. Facebook didn’t force its users to absorb the Russian-propagated fake news of 2016. “Sure, you could put stories into people’s feeds that contradicted their political viewpoints, but people would turn away from them,” note Thompson and Vogelstein. “The problem, as Anker puts it, ‘is not Facebook. It’s humans.’”

Michael Brendan Dougherty pointed this out in an article for National Review [2] last week, one that astutely contrasted Thompson’s and Vogelstein’s piece with an op-ed Ross Douthat just wrote [3] for The New York Times in which he argued that we should ban pornography. While the first (well-received) article suggests that Facebook (and we ourselves) can and should curate an online atmosphere of virtue and respect, the second was received with anger and disdain, as even many who respected the Wired article argued that—at least when it comes to porn—we should be able to do what we want. This ironic contradiction, Dougherty argues, stems from the same fantastical attitude toward online life:

Our culture-makers seem to believe in a neatly cleaved human nature. In one realm, we can expect ourselves to act as angels, and do the disinterested thing. In another, perhaps to let off some steam, we must give the Devil his due.

But perhaps the defenders of porn should consider that the common purveyors and sharers of fake news across social media are also engaged in a form of self-abuse, combined with titillation, and fantasy life. They no more believe that Barack Obama is running guns to ISIS than that the surgically enhanced 30-year-old woman in a plaid skirt is a very bad Catholic-school girl. It’s just a reality they prefer to envision. One where they can gaze into a backlit screen, click around, and imagine they aren’t wasting their lives clicking around on a backlit screen.

We love the internet because it enables us to craft the world we want, instead of forcing us to confront the world as it is. We can doctor our Instagram selfies, visit news sites that foster our less temperate and virtuous passions, follow the Facebook users who will puff up our self-esteem, dabble in the darker delights of the internet—all without ever asking ourselves whether it’s “right” or “wrong.”

But at some point, we must confront the world we’ve made online—because whether we like it or not, it will infect and alter our physical reality.

Zuckerberg has been immersed in that world longer (and on a deeper level) than most of us—which means he’s reached this moment of crisis and self-confrontation earlier than most of us. Thompson and Vogelstein write that “people who know him say that Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months. …‘This whole year has massively changed his personal techno-­optimism,’ says an executive at the company. ‘It has made him much more paranoid about the ways that people could abuse the thing that he built.’”

In recent months, the authors write, Facebook has decided it’s “putting a car in reverse that had been driving at full speed in one direction for 14 years.” Although Zuckerberg has always intended “to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible,” he’s now encouraging changes to the platform, which, he believes, will make people use Facebook less. Perhaps he’s realizing he needs to design for fallibility, addiction, and bombast—not for perfectibility, innocence, and self-control.

But Zuckerberg cannot edit human sin out of Facebook’s algorithms. We are ultimately responsible for our own choices, online and off, which means we all need to have our own Zuckerberg moments in coming days. That means we must realize that the internet does not, in fact, bring out our best selves, and must be approached with temperance and caution. We must confront the beasts we’ve created online: our own miniaturized Facebook Frankenstein monsters, whether they be unkind profile posts, ruined friendships, malicious blog posts, or toxic news feeds. If we don’t, we risk deeper consequences than fake news and nasty election cycles. We risk giving up real community and real virtue for fantastical and fake counterfeits.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Mark Zuckerberg Takes on His Facebook Frankenstein Monster"

#1 Comment By Celery On February 19, 2018 @ 2:43 am

I see over and over the idea presented that the online world has caused us to create “bubbles” in which to ensconce ourselves from that which we don’t prefer. But it has ever been so. “Birds of a feather flock together.” Who goes out of their way to befriend those who irritate or annoy them? No one. Before the online world existed, persons could explore other opinions or ideas more safely — without the impolite and sometimes vicious comments about a subject — and that’s where the real difference lay.

No one grits their teeth and suffers the company of those who disagree violently with them in order to perfect themselves or become better humans. In fact, it is proven that being around so-called “toxic” people has a physically harmful effect. But dipping into other views and opinions without the accompanying toxic issuance from comments or a biased tone in writing could become a thing again, one in which people improve their understanding of the world around them.

The internet did not create the “bubbles,” that’s human nature and won’t change, but the toxic accompaniment needs to go. Free expression is BS. Polite and courteous expression is not. The lie that “free speech” means you can be as vile as obscene as you like needs to be challenged, and challenged forcefully.

The gate that needs to be kept is in not allowing unverified information online — and if you can’t afford the resources to do that, please go out of business — and harmful speech. Create software that takes something less than kindly stated and removes the objectionable parts. It doesn’t mean you’re censored in what you say, but in how you say it. A skill that can be learned and should be taught in school. But until there is a consequence for turning the online reality into a toxic dump, nothing will change. As this article states, the milk of human kindness won’t well up to create a perfect world. To create a less imperfect world, you need a stick.

#2 Comment By jerry t lawler On February 19, 2018 @ 8:53 am

Thank you Ms. Olmstead for articulating so well a fear many of us hold about social media. Here is a thought experiment-suppose Mr Zuckerberg and been raised on an academic diet of the classics and liberal studies in Western Civilization instead of the STEM/Computer Science focus that was his main diet growing up. I wonder if he would have created the Frankenstein driven by the naive belief that just by facilitating communication, you improve the world. The current culture values “smart” on the smart-intelligent-wise continuum and your article provides some hope that this powerful person may be moving toward the right.

#3 Comment By David Nash On February 19, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

Several years ago, I tried Facebook and found quickly that my friends and relatives, with whom I hoped to connect, had self-sorted into rigid socio-political groupings, one even going to far as to delete postings which I made that were contrary to her prejudices. I left and deleted my account shortly thereafter.

We shall now see if Frankenstein can be tamed, or if the Big Z will abandon his millions in favor of humanity (by destroying the monster.)

I suspect even if Zuckerberg were to gain control of his creation (how, and without subjective censorship ‘molding opinions’?), or blow it up, someone would quickly start another platform to do the same thing. Pandora’s Box (to use another metaphor) is open.

But, hey… it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. Right?

#4 Comment By Virginia On February 19, 2018 @ 12:54 pm

Dear Sir (or whoever) I am a senior and absolutely stupid when it comes to getting into Facebook….have tried, and tried..would like a tip..thanks Ginny

#5 Comment By spite On February 19, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

Celery:
“It doesn’t mean you’re censored in what you say, but in how you say it.”

What a joke, that is censorship, but since you believe in such epically bad logic, lets start right away with you! What you said there was bad in how you said it (don’t ask me to quantify it, since you cannot do it either), so your comment must be removed.

#6 Comment By Ken T On February 19, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

Celery:

I think the point you are missing is that there is a qualitative difference between an individual self-selecting to surround himself with a bubble, versus an AI algorithm creating that bubble without his knowledge. You write,
No one grits their teeth and suffers the company of those who disagree violently with them in order to perfect themselves or become better humans.
But in fact many people will choose to seek out differing opinions, to try to get a better understanding of things. However, they can only do that if they are aware that those differing opinions exist. If the algorithm is screening their feed to eliminate those other opinions before they even see them, they may never have the chance.

#7 Comment By Flyover guy On February 19, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

For the past two years or so, study after study, article after article have come out exposing the inherit and unresolvable problems facilitated by social media.

The advice always revolves around how careful we must be when consuming this medium.

Here’s a crazy idea: stop using social media. Just. Stop. You will not be missed by anyone on Facebook. And pretty quickly you won’t miss it either.

#8 Comment By DJ Tanyan On February 19, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

“That means we must realize that the internet does not, in fact, bring out our best selves, and must be approached with temperance and caution.”
I would slightly amend this to target “social media” rather than “the Internet” writ large. While caution online is always prudent, using Social media is analogous to walking down a really bad alley in the metropolis that is the wider Internet.
I think MZ will actually lose control of FB and a shadowy consortium (with govt. connections) will gain control

#9 Comment By RichterRox On February 19, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

Face book is for moms to share pictures of their kids with their moms , using it for anything else is stupid to boring.

Social media is so overhyped.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 20, 2018 @ 1:54 am

That article made it clear that the company and its employees were shocked and distraught that Hillary Clinton hadn’t become President. Thus, obviously, they must have done something wrong that had enabled the wrong person to win. Filled with hubris, it couldn’t possibly have been that people preferred someone else, Facebook or no Facebook.

#11 Comment By vato_loco_frisco On February 20, 2018 @ 9:53 am

Facebook should be broken up into many tiny irrelevant pieces.

#12 Comment By Dot And Carry One On February 20, 2018 @ 2:21 pm

I’m with flyover guy: Just stop. I do miss a few things about Facebook, such as the great postings on archaeology from a college buddy who became a professor. But overall I’ve been happier since walking away a year ago, in large part because I’m no longer wasting time every day. Take a walk, visit a friend, play a game with your kids (or somebody else’s).

I think a lot of people are starting to realize just how useless (at best) social media can be.

#13 Comment By Celery On February 21, 2018 @ 1:28 am

@Ken T

I think everyone knows differing opinions exist! Contact with only one other person during your lifetime would teach you that. The ability to learn new or other things is always there. I think the reason many retreat into their bubbles is because it has become far too contentious to try and seek out other opinions. Do you really think algorithms will trump a person’s actual real life experience of interaction with others? Even a very small child knows his mom doesn’t always hold the same opinion as they do.

@spite

Spite, yes, choosing that name to identify yourself says a lot right there.

#14 Comment By Andrew On February 21, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

This “fake news” nonsense is unimportant and a smokescreen for what matters; a need for Congress to apply mandatory 1st amendment principles to Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest of no censorship whatsoever. People thinking for themselves didn’t have much problem being “fooled” by ridiculous stories like the DC child pornography pizza shop or whatever. There will always be stupid news consumers who can’t sift the wheat from the chaff. That’s their problem. What DOES matter is left-wingers running Google and PayPal booting right-wing sites off their servers like they did after Charlottesville that goes against the spirit of free speech and the American way of life. They should be more regulated and fined for any acts of censorship than US Steel or Standard Oil ever were for antitrust, and whiny free market arguments against it are wholly unconvincing in the face of a few corporations holding such power over the entire web marketplace.

#15 Comment By Ricport On February 22, 2018 @ 10:24 am

Social media is arguably one of the greatest methods ever conceived for morons to connect with each other so they can communicate absolutely nothing of import. And considering Zuckerberg and these other “remorseful” millennial social media titans gained all of their massive wealth and power via this method, we all know they would do nothing different if they had to do it all over again.

Last time I checked, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of these electronic sludge pots are not run by the government. There is no legal mandate for anyone to use them. I never have, and – shockingly! – I’m doing quite fine, thank you. I don’t have to contend with pics and posts of how many times your kid took a dump today. I’ll never know how I can corner the real estate market through hypnosis. I don’t have to contend with the “why did they unfriend me?!?” hyperdrama. Yet, amazingly, I don’t feel a bit deprived. I remain in contact with those I want to remain in contact with. And, more importantly, I have my privacy.

I also would sooner pick up a copy of the Weekly World News at the supermarket for my news before I’d rely on anything oozing out on social media. Anyone dumb enough to rely on social media as their main source of actual information deserves what they get.

#16 Comment By Kevin O’Keeffe On February 22, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

Facebook can be a fantastic platform, when you limit your primary use to private groups, consisting of, at most, a few dozen people one knows (and consisting of people whom are genuinely interesting). Some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve ever had, have taken place in precisely that context, within just the last couple of years (and this is still ongoing, not some memory of a bygone social media interlude). But using the platform like a “normie” will yield the sort of “normie” results that are intended by the the clique of people who dominate the rest of the mass media as well. “Normie” Facebook really is just a platform for exchanging baby photos, and really of almost sole interest to middle-aged women of conventional tastes.