Mark Zuckerberg’s humanitarian manifesto
“Are we building the world we all want?” That’s a question often reserved for the lips of presidents and religious leaders, and too rarely asked by CEOs. But technology has risen as a force that unites us, alongside government and faith. So too must captains of industry rise to accept their opportunity of influence, for the betterment of humanity in one of its most volatile moments.
Mark Zuckerberg never saw Facebook as just a business, and so never accepted his role as just a businessman.
Five years ago, in Zuckerberg’s pre-IPO letter to Facebook investors, he wrote, “There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future.”
Now with Facebook reaching 1.86 billion users and building technology to expand internet access everywhere, his constituency exceeds that of any nation. He’s made monumental strides toward steps 1 and 2.
Today, Zuckerberg offers a vision and rallying call for working toward step 3 — to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” He’s just published the 5,000-word letter embedded below, establishing the central tenets of the next phase of Facebook’s mission: support, safety, information, civic engagement and inclusion.
In the center of Facebook’s headquarters, within Zuckerberg’s glass-walled office that keeps his leadership transparent, he spoke to TechCrunch about his hopes and ideas.
“When I started Facebook, this idea of connecting the world was not controversial. The default assumption was that the world was moving in that direction and that year after year the world will get more connected,” he says. That afforded Facebook a chance to start small, tying friends and family closer.
“What’s the most positive thing I can do?”
“Now, I think it’s somewhat of a reaction to globalization and change moving so quickly, but I think there are a lot of people around the world, not just in the U.S., but all different countries, that feel left behind by globalization. And there are movements as a result to push back on furthering global connection.”
Donald Trump is the elephant in Zuckerberg’s aquarium, though he never mentions him by name. While the new president has already done damage to the country’s social fabric, he’s also stirred up passion for change, Zuckerberg recognizes.
“Now you have a lot of people who are asking, ‘Okay, what is the most positive thing that I can do if I’m upset about that?’ My answer is that the most productive thing is not going to be just being upset about it, but actually going and building the long-term infrastructure that can help bring people together,” Zuckerberg explains.
Though his letter is philosophical, it also lays out several concrete product developments Facebook is planning to provide this infrastructure.
First, the company will try to counteract the declining participation in local community groups, which Zuckerberg cites has decreased up to 25 percent since the 1970s. Users will see more suggestions to join locally based Facebook Groups. And Facebook will give the leaders of these Groups more tools to communicate with and organize their communities, including options to create ‘sub-communities.’
Zuckerberg says, “One of the things that we’ve seen in online communities, but also including offline communities, is that having an engaged and talented leader is one of the key things for making a strong community … but right now our Groups product hasn’t really been built to facilitate the leaders.”
Instead, it was designed for ad hoc organization of smaller groups, like families, “where there is no ‘leader.’” Zuckerberg didn’t outline specific features, but says, “You can definitely see us building everything that we’ve built for Pages, for Groups.” That might include analytics about what topics are resonating with member, the option to assign a wider variety of admin or moderator roles, and pull in outside apps to expand functionality.
In the right hands, these tools could harness the bristling energy of communities today so individuals feel empowered. Facebook can’t enact change from the top-down, but it can boost the efficiency of grass-roots movements.
Solidarity that respects diversity
Zuckerberg admits in his letter that “Sitting here in California, we’re not best positioned to identify the cultural norms around the world.” Yet to date, Facebook has relied on a one-size-fits-most set of community standards governing what is acceptable and unacceptable to share in its town square. While it abides by censorship laws in the few countries that require it to, Facebook otherwise has assumed people will have an identical perspective of morality.
For Facebook to empower all communities, it must also adapt to them, without trampling the unique opinions of the individuals within them.
“With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance,” Zuckerberg writes.
“Europeans more frequently find fault with taking down images depicting nudity, since some European cultures are more accepting of nudity than, for example, many communities in the Middle East or Asia.”
That’s why Facebook plans to allow users to customize their preferences around how much violence, nudity and profanity they see in the app. In what Zuckerberg says is “like a referendum,” users who don’t respond to periodic requests to personalize these controls will be defaulted to the setting selected by the majority of people in their region.
Zuckerberg says the goal of this new approach to community governance is that “the Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community, that each person should see as little objectionable content as possible, and each person should be able to share what they want while being told they cannot share something as little as possible.”
Facebook once before tried to give users a direct say in its policies. But this site governance system required 30 percent of users to vote, a massive turnout, for their majority decision to be binding. When 619,000 people voted at 87 percent they wanted to stop Facebook from intermingling data with Instagram and removing their future right to influence governance, the user base fell short 299.4 million votes.
The new direction for Facebook governance accepts that not everyone is civically active, and gives those who are more control while assigning settings in line with local culture to everyone else.
Depolarizing Politics With A Spectrum Of Opinions
The “us vs them” mentality is the antithesis of Zuckerberg’s beliefs. While the Internet might present a broader range of ideas than living in an isolated town of like-minds, it also establishes a battlefield of ideology where people clash. And through the referral traffic and subsequent ad revenue Facebook delivers, it incentivizes sensationalism that divides the populace into oppositional forces.
Facebook has been hit with the brunt of the blame for the fake news phenomenon, and is fighting back against misinformation with outside fact checkers and more features. But Zuckerberg sees an opportunity to attack polarization directly instead of just the symptoms.
“Our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this” Zuckerberg writes. “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.” Injecting the other side’s rhetoric to pop the filter bubble can push us further apart.
Zuckerberg’s believes “A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.”
Together, these initiatives around community groups, localized standards, and diversity of opinions can start to shrink the distance between us and our fellow humans.