I’m not sure how Mark Zuckerberg starts his day, but I can sure play the role of fabulous fabulist. Behold:
He wakes up, strips off his silk pajama hoodie with the “f” on it, smirks in the mirror, and says, “I STILL can’t believe I got away with stealing the HarvardConnection idea from Divya Narendra and the Winklevoss twins. They hired me as a schmuck programmer. But I pretended to drag my feet while I worked in secret to set up my own thing.”
What really happened at Harvard with Zuckerberg, HarvardConnection, Narendra and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss twins remains shrouded in a 2008 settlement that keeps a hornet’s nest of conflicting accounts locked in a legal Pandora’s box. But this much I do know:
a) The Winklevosses initially netted $65 million from that settlement, which ballooned to $300 million based on the 1.2 million shares they held at Facebook’s IPO.
b) Finding the full account of the story under the “Facebook” entry on Wikipedia isn’t easy. It takes up less than 100 words out of nearly 200 paragraphs.
c) Zuck was never Facebook’s sole founder but actually one of five.
d) No one disputes that HarvardConnection came first and that Zuckerberg, then a Harvard sophomore, was enlisted to program this nascent social network. That’s it. Nothing more.
Given these facts alone, it’s very difficult for me to trust a global CEO who got his start this way. What does this have to do with journalism? Plenty. Read on.
Move Fast and Break News Standards
Zuck bragged early on that his motto at Facebook was: “Move fast and break things.” He later downplayed it. Becoming the leader of a publicly traded company worth $784 billion will do that to you. But flesh-eating beasts of the jungle do not change their stripes so easily. Zuckerberg should take credit for moving fast and breaking the one thing you and I hold dear: journalistic standards.
Social media is not media. A rotted-out soapbox is not an editor’s desk. Half-truths are not truths and lies are not carefully vetted news stories. But you’d never know it given how Facebook gave a platform to all of it, in the process letting lunatics and Russian bots run its News Feed asylum. It’s kind of like how the public-facing motto “Facebook is free, and always will be” squares with a very expensive reality. You and I give up our valuable data to it so that they can rake in tons of dough and sell us things with all the stealth of a cyber vapor. Facebook should pay us for it. Good luck with that.
Still I have a bone to pick the size of a titanosaurus femur with how Facebook wants it both ways, has it both ways, pretends not to want or have it both ways — and in the process gets what it craves: page views, time spent on its site and ultimately ad revenue. The truth is, more people turn to Facebook for their news than a lot of respected, established journalism outlets. If we make a mistake, the whole world cries “FAKE NEWS!” If someone on Facebook tells an intentional lie, you get stuff like QAnon with lots of “likes.” Or, tons of false information about vaccines that could threaten lives if people choose to opt out of a COVID-19 shot because of it.
Cha-ching: Why Facebook Likes Hate Speech
The truth is, the teenage Zuckerberg had no idea what he’d create. Who would? Maybe he had an inkling of its financial potential or, as he likes to boast, the way it would change how people connect. Without an ounce of journalistic training, I don’t think it ever dawned on him how his platform could and would become a haven for hate speech. Here’s an excerpt from a recent New Yorker piece by Andrew Marant that I find telling. Damning. Alarming:
Facebook’s representatives [have] repeatedly claimed that they took the spread of harmful content seriously, indicating that they could manage the problem if they were only given more time. Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial-justice group Color of Change, told me, “I don’t want to sound naïve, but until recently I was willing to believe that they were committed to making real progress. But then the hate speech and the toxicity keeps multiplying, and at a certain point you go, Oh, maybe, despite what they say, getting rid of this stuff just isn’t a priority for them.”
Beyond the token gestures, here is where Zuckerberg’s heart, conscience and efforts truly lie:
There are reportedly more than five hundred full-time employees working in Facebook’s PR department. These days, their primary job is to insist that Facebook is a fun place to share baby photos and sell old couches, not a vector for hate speech, misinformation, and violent extremist propaganda.
Which explains this, as opined by Nina Jankowicz on PRI’s “The World”:
What accountability does Zuckerberg or his company have to the governments of countries that may not represent an imminent public relations problem or a front in the information war, that have not or cannot pursue regulation, but where people and their democratic processes suffer due to the information they encounter on the platform? If Facebook’s treatment of larger, wealthier countries is any indication, none at all.
(By the way, the photo accompanying the story continues to assert the truth that millions of viewers witnessed when Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April 2018: He still doesn’t know how to knot a tie properly.)
A Programmer Who Never Got With the Program
How did we get there? Reams and reams and reams of cyberpaper have been spent exploring the connection between the 2016 presidential election results and how Russian programmers played a role in manipulating Facebooks algorithms to stoke anger, create fake rallies that actually attracted far-right protesters and spread mistruths about the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Zuckerberg should know all about how this works; he is, after all, a former programmer who figured out how to put flesh on the social media bones when others could not.
But if ever he was ruthless in his efforts to wrest HarvardConnection from its rightful founders and clone it, he certainly has developed such a streak as a businessperson. And Facebook’s home for haters, liars and dangerous disinformationalists — never before have they had such a powerful pulpit! — can be traced to a seminal act of greed and power lust.
This excellent piece by Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein details how Zuckerberg’s drive to crush Twitter’s dominance in distributing news online allowed foreign actors to use it as a smear and propaganda platform — and sway the results of the 2016 election:
Zuckerberg pursued a strategy he has often deployed against competitors he cannot buy: He copied, then crushed. He adjusted Facebook’s News Feed to fully incorporate news (despite its name, the feed was originally tilted toward personal news) and adjusted the product so that it showed author bylines and headlines. Then Facebook’s emissaries fanned out to talk with journalists and explain how to best reach readers through the platform.
This dovetails with icy precision to the lawsuit just filed today (Wed., Dec. 9) by the Federal Trade Commission and 48 states. This just in from the New York Times:
Regulators are accusing the company of buying up rising rivals to cement its dominance over social media. … Facebook [now has] control over three of the world’s most popular social media and messaging apps [Instagram and WhatsApp the other two].
Making disinformation issues right at Facebook isn’t a priority. It never has been. But making money is. Regardless of the result, the lawsuit points out an obvious truth. Zuckerberg and Company either buy their social media rivals or seek to pulverize them. “Move fast, buy things or break the competition’s things.”
As recently as June 5, Michael Hiltzik wrote on MSN Money about the case for breaking up Facebook. I agree: Let’s Move Fast and Break Things. Why? Because Zuck offered what sounded like a confused high schooler’s defense of Donald Trump’s postings that borderline encouraged violence against Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis and elsewhere. This quote came from a video town hall for his employees:
“I do think that expression and voice is … a thing that routinely needs to be stood up for.” — Mark Zuckerberg
That kind of line would get a third grader a D on a homework assignment. It also moved Hiltzik to state the obvious:
Mark Zuckerberg‘s cluelessness shows how socially dangerous Facebook has become.
A Big If and a Big F for the Little f
On Nov. 10, 2016, Zuckerberg called the idea that Facebook influenced the 2016 elections by allowing fake news on his News Feed to run rampant “a pretty crazy idea.” By September 2017, he’d changed his mind: “Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it.” Awwwww. That’s OK, Mark. We forgive you. Come on, let’s jump on our skateboards and tap that keg!
Both of Zuckerberg’s responses to me sound like off-the-cuff utterances of a college sophomore. The problem is, free speech and journalistic power do not belong in the hands of college sophomores.
Back at that stage of his life, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to pursue his “idea.” Then he kidnapped the letter “f” as his logo. (Don’t you dare print up your own hoodie with an “f” on it, even if you want it to stand for “fluffy.” Facebook’s lawyers will hunt you down, which is more than I we can say for how they’ll react to the next kill-’em-all post from a far-right militia group.)
Facebook! The little big “f”! How f***ing fitting. Because that’s the grade he deserves. An F. In discerning the difference between a free press and a free-for-all, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg has failed, and failed us all.