Facebook's Actions Fail To Align With Zuck's Grander Visions

Published in Online Spin, May 25th, 2018

“Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” said founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his 2017 manifesto. He went on to describe, at length, the role the social network can play in helping people build supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged, and inclusive communities.

It was a warm and fuzzy vision of the world, seen by many as an indication that Zuckerberg was preparing a political move.

To some, however, Zuckerberg’s manifesto seemed the height of irony. How could the platform that gave us Cambridge Analytica and actual fake news, the platform at the heart of violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and against Rohingya in Myanmar, help us build supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged, and inclusive communities?

Where two billion people gather, we will inevitably find bad actors. So is it fair to blame Facebook for their behavior?

Well — yes, if the social giant is not abiding by its own guidelines. If executives are made aware of issues and given the opportunity to address them — and consistently ignore them. If Facebook so clearly and systematically has a policy of asking for forgiveness, not permission.

Last month, a group of 13 activist groups published an open letter to Facebook, urging the company to adhere to its own community standards: “On September 7, 2017, we reported a photo featuring a poem in Sinhala. The text, written from a woman’s perspective, suggested that women often said ‘no’ when they ‘meant yes’, because they were shy… You took two days to respond, and said that it did not violate your Community Standards, even though your Standards commits to the removal of content that promotes sexual violence or exploitation.”

But why wouldn’t Facebook just take horrific posts like this one down?

Perhaps it’s money. It costs money to police the social network properly, and Facebook can earn more money by letting the bad actors stay.

There’s some evidence for this argument. Back in March, Bloomberg published an expose on affiliate marketing through Facebook, investigating the folks who sell fake diet pills, fake smart pills, fake penile enhancement pills, etc.

The journalist had gone to a conference for the industry, and was surprised by Facebook’s overt presence: “The Berlin conference was hosted by an online forum called Stack That Money, but a newcomer could be forgiven for wondering if it was somehow sponsored by Facebook Inc. Saleswomen from the company held court onstage, introducing speakers and moderating panel discussions. After the show, Facebook representatives flew to Ibiza on a plane rented by Stack That Money to party with some of the top affiliates.”

The article continues: “Affiliates say Facebook has sent mixed signals over the years. Their accounts would get banned, but company salespeople would also come to their meetups and parties and encourage them to buy more ads. “Two former Facebook employees who worked in the Toronto sales office said it was common knowledge there that some of their best clients were affiliates who used deception. Still, the sources said, salespeople were instructed to push them to spend more, and the rep who handled the dirtiest accounts had a quota of tens of millions of dollars per quarter. (He left Facebook last year.)”

OK, maybe money is the reason Facebook allows this kind of behavior. But here’s what I don’t understand. Unlike most public companies, which have to obey Wall Street or face its wrath, Mark Zuckerberg has total control over his company. Each one of his shares gets 10 votes. He can’t be kicked out. The board is stuck with him. The shareholders are stuck with him. And you’d think he’d be past being motivated by money at this stage.

So how come Facebook’s actions are so out of alignment with the founder’s words? Maybe he needs to read his own manifesto.

Kaila Colbin