By Meg Wagner
A utopian future with few specifics
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg published a lengthy letter on Thursday detailing the social media platform’s plan to bring the world closer together — a lofty, idealistic manifesto that condemned fake news and partisan “filter bubbles” as contributors to growing isolationism.
The nearly 6,000-word memo lays out the company’s new mission of promoting a “global community,” but is scarce on concrete details about how the company, valued in the billions, will accomplish that goal.
“For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook will have a role in five areas: building safe communities, dispelling misinformation, ensuring global safety, promoting civil engagement and encouraging inclusivity.
“My hope is that more of us will commit our energy to building the long-term social infrastructure to bring humanity together,” Zuckerberg wrote.
The letter specially addresses concerns that Facebook is a platform for fake news and allegations that it allows users to limit the kinds of opinions they see, essentially creating “filter bubbles” by filling feeds with viewpoints in line with their own. While Zuckerberg wrote that he worries about both of these problems, he says he wants Facebook to “help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives.”
“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,” he wrote.
Walking back initial denials
Facebook came under fire in November following the election of President Donald Trump. Critics claimed that social media networks like Facebook enable fake news — entirely made-up or at least heavily embellished stories, disguised as factual news articles — to spread across the web. A large amount of those false stories were aimed towards conservative viewpoints (although there is liberal fake news, too). This may have pushed voters toward Trump.
Zuckerberg initially balked at those accusations, pointing out that Internet hoaxes existed long before Facebook’s 2004 founding.
Such criticism isn’t limited to the U.S. In January, a Syrian refugee sued Facebook after a selfie he took with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 spread on the social media site alongside false reports that linked him to terrorism. Other Facebook users took the innocent picture out of context and claimed he was a suspect in several European terror attacks — suggesting that Merkel’s refugee policy was putting Germany at risk. A ruling in that case is expected in March.
Meanwhile, Italy has also blasted Facebook for allegedly letting fake news circulate. Laura Boldrini, head of Italian parliament’s lower house, wrote a letter to Zuckerberg this week demanding the network do a better job policing for both inaccurate stories and hate speech.
“His platform risks becoming home to dangerous predators … the company has to take responsibility for this,” she said.
Zuckerberg’s Thursday letter marks a stark change in tone from his initial denials about Facebook and fake news. But it still offers no concrete plan for how the social media giant will tackle the issue.
Without details on how to make the Facebook’s idealistic global community a reality, the letter “about nothing” is considered by some to be more of a PR stunt than an operational plan.
But while not mentioned in the sprawling memo, Facebook has, in fact, moved ahead with specific plans to combat fake news.
The company announced earlier this month that it will roll out a type of fake-news filter in France ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential primary. The social media giant will work with eight reputable French newspapers, news stations, and wire services. If two or more of those partners doubt the accuracy of a story, Facebook says it will run the piece with an icon indicating that the content is questionable.
But there’s no word yet on if or when that type of content flagging will come to other countries.
Zuckerberg’s idealistic letter comes at a curious time: It was published less than a month after speculation surfaced in January that the 32-year-old CEO may be preparing for a bid for the U.S. presidency.
Zuckerberg quickly squashed those rumors, saying he was fully committed to his work at Facebook, but his letter helped those allegations resurface on social media Friday.