The Observer view on Mark Zuckerberg | Observer editorial

His Facebook vision is anything but benign

‘Are we building the world we want?” Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire CEO of Facebook, asked last week in a 5,700-word post that was quickly dubbed a “manifesto”. He used it to launch a strident defence of globalisation, striking a discordant note with the populism of contemporary political debate, and to set out his vision for the role he believes Facebook should play in creating a better world.

While Zuckerberg appears to acknowledge some of the criticism that has been levelled at an increasingly powerful Facebook in recent years, it would be wrong to be lulled into a false sense of security by his reassuringly benign tones. In his post, he signals a shift in Facebook’s mission, historically focused on giving people the power to share and connect. On Friday, Zuckerberg wrote “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”.

But there is something chilling in Zuckerberg’s failure to recognise that Facebook is already a for-profit form of social infrastructure, with immense and unprecedented power over our lives. And in making its profit, Facebook creates social value, yes, but also social harm.

Facebook’s stunning reach extends beyond that which any other company has ever had. A quarter of the world’s population – 1.86 billion people – have Facebook accounts. Facebook shapes the way they consume, process and interact with information, and with each other. It got there by pursuing aggressive growth strategies. For areas of the world where consumers cannot readily afford the internet access required to consume Facebook, it has developed a superficially philanthropic initiative,, to give consumers in the global south free internet access. But look deeper, and it is clearly about building Facebook’s user base and profits, offering strictly limited access: just to Facebook and a few of its partner sites. Banned by Indian regulators after a public outcry mobilised by local internet entrepreneurs, in several other countries, it has faced little pushback.

Facebook’s monopoly-style power extends far beyond people’s internet access. Together with Google, it has cannibalised the online advertising revenue so vital to enabling the investigative journalism that has never been more important in today’s world. Zuckerberg barely acknowledges Facebook’s role in the accelerating demise of the traditional media, and offers nothing beyond inane platitudes.

By filtering the information we see, Facebook also changes the way we think. Its algorithms – whose design, of course, is motivated by profit – function as editors, pushing us to content that we are most likely to find engaging, from people we are naturally drawn to.

In doing so, Facebook facilitates the filter bubbles that mean we are increasingly consuming content created by people who think and act exactly like us, and has done little to combat the spread of fake news. Zuckerberg writes “our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more”.

But there is nothing “natural” or organic about an editorial process. Facebook has a duty to make its editorial algorithms transparent so its users know what they are consuming.

Like other corporate giants, Facebook has done all in its power to minimise its tax bill, paying a fraction of what it owes the societies from which it draws its profits, undermining the very social infrastructure Zuckerberg claims to want to build. Yet Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have the gall to argue that government should pay everyone an unconditional basic income while one of its biggest darlings pays hardly any tax. It forewarns of a feudal-type world where a select few own all the technological wealth and pay the rest of us just enough to eke out a basic subsistence.

Save perhaps Google, no other company matches Facebook’s influence. But it signals a bigger shift in economic power, enabled by technology, away from consumers, producers and employees, to platforms such as Uber and Airbnb that add infrastructure rather than productive capacity to the economy.

Our outdated systems of national and international regulation lag far behind the way they operate. While there are no laws to stop apps such as Deliveroo slashing by half tomorrow the prices it pays the couriers it claims are self-employed, there are laws to stop companies doing that to their employees. Treating people well shouldn’t be in companies’ gift: it should be the law.

All this is happening at a time when the boundaries between politics and business are blurring, with a billionaire president who has brought corruptive conflicts of interest into the White House. By Zuckerberg’s own admission “in recent campaigns around the world… we’ve seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins”. If Zuckerberg were to run for president in the future, as some have speculated, would he be all but unbeatable?

This is not an argument about corrupt, all-powerful individuals. Zuckerberg’s philanthropy suggests his self-professed desire to create social value is genuine. Rather, Facebook is the grim sign of something going seriously wrong in our economic model. The balance of economic power – so critical in holding companies accountable – is tipping in favour of a small group of companies in a corner of California that governments are proving unwilling or unable to properly regulate.

Zuckerberg’s pitch is a warning to us all. If he really wanted to do good, he would be launching a debate on how governments can regulate new-age natural monopolies such as Facebook, and publishing Facebook’s algorithms to make them as transparent as newspaper editorial policies. But Zuckerberg is a businessman, not a political leader: why should he do this when it risks profits?

Facebook’s success is prophetic of a future in which we may all have to rely on a few all-powerful companies benevolently gifting us scraps like grants for struggling media organisations, or a meagre basic income to supplement poverty wages. But today, consumers and citizens still have the power to demand something different, and the laws of our lands still have the power to enforce it. We should act while we can.


Observer editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mark Zuckerberg: being popular is so over. It’s about winning now | Rebecca Nicholson
Facebook’s CEO says, ominously, that he will be making unpopular decisions because he believes them to be right

Rebecca Nicholson

01, Feb, 2020 @3:30 PM

Article image
Where now for Mark Zuckerberg after his – and our – loss of innocence? | Martin Moore
A year on from the Observer exposé, what has really changed for Facebook and its users?

Martin Moore

17, Mar, 2019 @7:59 AM

Article image
The latest revelations mark the beginning of the end for the House of Zuckerberg | Carole Cadwalladr
The Observer’s investigations into Facebook in 2018 exposed a toxic culture. But still the business thrived. That might be about to change

Carole Cadwalladr

10, Oct, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Observer view on robust action needed to curb 'online gangsters' | Observer editorial
The government has failed to tackle overtly political issues such as disinformation on Brexit or interference in polls

Observer editorial

24, Feb, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Mark Zuckerberg, the modern Bond villain, is now coming for your children | Rebecca Nicholson
Instagram for kids? If the billionaire catches them early, he’ll have them for life

Rebecca Nicholson

17, Apr, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Mark Zuckerberg says the email's end is nigh. LOL | John Naughton
John Naughton: Facebook's founder is profoundly missing the point about emails

John Naughton

27, Nov, 2011 @12:06 AM

Article image
The Observer view on net neutrality
The internet is fundamental. It must not become a two-tier service – one for the rich, one for the poor

Observer editorial

17, Dec, 2017 @12:05 AM

Article image
For the first time in its history, Facebook is in decline. Has the tech giant begun to crumble? | John Naughton
As long as the number of users kept growing, Mark Zuckerberg felt able to ride out scandals and criticism. He can no longer rely on that defence

John Naughton

06, Feb, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Europe and America are taking on the tech giants. Britain needs to join the fight | Will Hutton
The government is a bystander to attempts to break up the Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple monopolies

Will Hutton

18, Oct, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules | Carole Cadwalladr
Even if we don’t think the Facebook boss’s manifesto is ill-intentioned, we should be worried by its implications

Carole Cadwalladr

19, Feb, 2017 @12:05 AM