Since 2009, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicly announced a personal improvement challenge in January, a sort of New Year’s resolution and Oprah’s Book Club rolled into one. Learn Mandarin. Run 365 miles. Kill your own meat. But this year, Zuckerberg pledged to spend 2018 “fixing” big problems at Facebook.
“The world feels anxious and divided,” he wrote, “and Facebook has a lot of work to do—whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”
This is quite a pivot from Zuck 2017, when he promised to visit folks around the country in a whistlestop tour that copied the trappings of a presidential campaign, including hiring a White House photographer to capture him in the act. Last year, before the Congressional hearings on Russian interference and micro-targeted “jew hater” ads, Zuckerberg took a stab at courting the popular vote. As I wrote at the time, the goal wasn’t winning over Real America, it was stockpiling social capital as a CEO who gets what Real America’s all about.
But this year, with Facebook down in the polls, Zuckerberg, like all good candidates for a cause, read the room and updated his slogan accordingly. His attention has turned away from the rodeos, big rigs, and milkshake shops. Instead he’s shoring up his base—Facebook employees and tech workers—and making a plea to his swing states—regulators and the media, which have recently swung from adoring to hostile. If 2017 looked like a first-timer’s presidential bid, 2018 is shaping up to be a reelection effort to keep Facebook in power. Less Obama ‘08 and more Paul Ryan last month.
For his techie base, Zuckerberg promised to think hard about “decentralization,” “encryption,” and “cryptocurrencies,” reminding them that Facebook was once an unprofitable startup too. For frustrated regulators and the skeptical press, both key demographics for Facebook, Zuckerberg owned up to the error of his ways. “We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools,” he wrote.
The meta-question across issues like abuse, election interference, and even Facebook’s control over how consumers spend their time is whether the company can self-regulate. Facebook whistleblowers say no. Researchers say no. Some of Facebook’s employees feel victimized by the criticism. Zuckerberg’s message to them, through this challenge, is: I hear you, but trust me, Facebook can fix it.
Still, under the gestures towards accountability, Zuckerberg sounds like an incumbent who doesn’t really think he will lose, testing the bounds of what he can get away with. The posture is more contrite, the geopolitical stakes are higher, but Zuckerberg is still pushing the same solution he did last year in his 6,000-word manifesto on democracy: fix Facebook with more Facebook.
Just consider the dog whistles that Zuckerberg dropped in Thursday’s announcement. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp is not gonna help return technology to its “decentralizing” roots. Facebook can’t offer “time well spent,” unless it retools its ad-driven business model. Even the phrase “time well spent” was copied from Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist trying to spread the word about the dangers of addictive technology. The last time Zuckerberg borrowed his phrase, Harris tweeted that it was, “Great to hear, but dishonest.”
The obvious joke about this year’s challenge is that Zuckerberg basically pledged to start doing his job as CEO of Facebook, but it’s more cynical than that. Zuckerberg keeps raising his hand to fix things—democracy, the global civic infrastructure, you name it—even though Facebook is reluctant to act.
Even in the past couple months, fact-checkers helping Facebook with fake news said they were denied access to necessary data, and Facebook’s tool to inform users about Russian interference was buried in its Help Center and quietly released just before Christmas.
Facebook’s continued lack of transparency and piecemeal response to outside pressure is dangerous precisely because, as Zuckerberg’s employees have argued, the blame doesn’t belong to Facebook alone. Yet, they control the data and levers of power. Real progress on abuse and propaganda will depend on whether Facebook empowers qualified third-party experts, faces real competition to do better, listens to its most vulnerable users, or has to face some form of regulatory oversight. But reclassifying “fixing Facebook” as a personal challenge doesn’t indicate a willingness to cede control.
It’s easier to pick apart Zuckerberg’s grand pronouncements than it is to address any item on his growing “to do” list. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that Zuckerberg’s vague and sweeping ambitions (remember connecting the next billion?) can have global consequences, even if slogans fade away from one year to the next.