Try this for a thought experiment. Pretend Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t born in White Plains, New York. Pretend, instead, he was born in Smolensk, Russia. His Facebook is not headquartered in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley. Instead, its global nerve centre is in Moscow. And he isn’t a freckled, fresh-faced young man with a nice-looking family and a cute dog. This Zuckerberg likes hunting, poses with guns and owns a bull mastiff.
What do you think of this less cuddly Mark Zuckerberg? This Facebook? The company that in its last quarter earned $8.8bn and counts half of the world’s internet users – 1.86 billion people – as its customers. The company that harvests your data, owns your baby photos, controls your news feed and goes to ever further lengths to capture your attention. What do you make of this Zuckerberg – let’s call him Misha – and his 5,000-word letter to the world, published on Thursday?
Because last week, Mark Zuckerberg – the actual one – set out a new mission for the company he has created. “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,” he says. A global community that “prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards”.
A role that might be more accurately described as this: government. Because that’s what this letter is, a template for Facebook’s role in a new world order. A supranational power that exists above and beyond the nation state. A digital interface between you and everything else: your friends, the news, the world.
The actual Zuckerberg does not pose with guns and own a bull mastiff. He is a thoughtful, reflective man who, in the 13 years since he first created Facebook, has built an extraordinary company, in no small part because he has undergone his own transformation from gauche 19 year old to cool-headed CEO. A man who dreamed up a multi-billion-dollar company while still a teenager and yet – and this is an important point – is not an arrogant fool.
And one response to his letter is to think it’s inspiring, touching, even, that there’s a billionaire out there who wants to build an “infrastructure”, a word he uses 24 times, that “prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards”.
But here’s another response: where does that power end? Who holds it to account? What are the limits on it? Because the answer is there are none. Facebook’s power and dominance, its knowledge of every aspect of its users’ intimate lives, its ability to manipulate their – our – world view, its limitless ability to generate cash, is already beyond the reach of any government.
Because what Zuckerberg’s letter to the world shows is that he’s making a considered, personal attempt to answer… the wrong question. He is wrestling with the question of how Facebook can change the world. Whereas the question is: do we actually want Facebook to change the world? Do we want any corporation to have so much unchecked power?
What’s more, Facebook is not just any corporation. It is a surveillance machine. In 2012, researchers from Cambridge University showed that knowing just 10 “likes” a Facebook user had clicked gave you more information on someone than a colleague might know; 150 and you’d know more than their partner. With 300, you’d know more about them than they knew about themselves.
We haven’t even started to think about what that means. It’s only just starting to come to light how the Trump campaign and the Leave campaign may have used that information to microtarget swing voters with highly personalised messages via Facebook ads. Or what it will mean in the future.
“In recent campaigns – from India across Europe to the United States – we’ve seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins,” Zuckerberg writes. Is that a good thing? is a question he doesn’t ask, though Marine Le Pen with her 1.2 million Facebook followers may have an answer. And, here he is, cheerfully envisioning a world in which Facebook is the intermediary between people and their governments. “We can help establish direct dialogue and accountability between people and our elected leaders.”
But what Mark Zuckerberg wants to believe is true is very different from what is actually true. “History has had many moments like today,” he writes. “As we’ve made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations… we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things that we could alone.”
Which – note to Zuck – is not actually how history works. If the present moment shows us nothing else, it’s that we are not on a travelator of unending upward progress. Empires rise, empires fall. Civilisations perish. And good intentions don’t necessarily make for good outcomes. Just glance back at Zuckerberg’s last mission statement from 2012.
“We hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information,” he said. Well, mission accomplished. Facebook has rewired the way people spread and consume information. Congratulations. What next?
One answer: artificial intelligence. “The long term promise of AI,” he wrote in a paragraph that was subsequently deleted, is that “it may also identify risks that nobody would have flagged at all, including terrorists planning attacks using private channels, people bullying someone too afraid to report it themselves.”
Or to put it another way: a company with no oversight and accountability that uses an algorithm that it allows no one to see is developing an AI that will decide if you are or aren’t a terrorist. What could possibly go wrong? Zuckerberg’s letter is a big deal. And yet, in the current news cycle, you may well have missed it. He released it on Thursday, coincidentally the same day on which Donald Trump denounced the press as the enemy of the people. A press whose financial model has been undermined by Google and Facebook. Which, we all have to hope, finds another financial model – and fast.
Because good intentions are not enough. It is not enough that Mark Zuckerberg is not an arrogant fool. Facebook is a corporation doing what corporations do: making money, grabbing market share, maximising profit. Think of Russian Mark Zuckerberg _ Misha, as I think of him – plotting all this from his headquarters in a business park outside Moscow, a bull mastiff at his side, his relationship to Putin still to play out. Still want that? Da?