Facebook, Free Speech and the Globalization Problem

Everybody talks about changing the world, but few people ever get a chance to actually do it.  Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg realizes this, and seems intent on making sure that he doesn’t miss his opportunity.  A lot of people might say that Zuckerberg has already done that, creating a social media platform that has literally connected billions of people across the planet and forever altered the way we consume and share information.  In an interview with Fast Company, however, he insists that Facebook is still very much a work in progress, and that there is still much left to be done.

Chief among those tasks is solving the problems that inevitably arise when technology moves faster than the ability of human social structures to keep up.  Back in the old days, when communication was far more interpersonal, it was a lot easier to avoid friction over differing views because people usually tried to keep the conversation polite by not talking about sore subjects.  People also tended to congregate in tighter-knit communities that shared the same values, which further kept a lid on cultural and political clashes.  But these days, your Facebook feed can easily be filled with all kinds of things you’d rather not see–and some things that will make your blood boil.  About this, Zuckerberg is remarkably candid, saying:

We know that people in the community want real information. Whenever we give them tools to get access to higher quality content, they’ll always go for that. But at the same time, we also believe in freedom of speech. People should have the ability to say what they think, even if someone else disagrees with that. And freedom of speech is a funny thing because people always want freedom of speech unless people disagree with them.

As somebody who has lost Facebook friends–and the occasional real friend–over a debate that erupted after some political post, I can personally attest that this is a very real problem.  It used to be that people who didn’t see each other too often only got that heated after a few drinks at the occasional holiday get-together.  With Facebook, you can have those kinds of fights every day–plus there’s something about dishing on a computer keyboard that makes people far more vicious than they would ever be in person.

And this is where the irony comes in.  Because of this rancor, a lot of Facebook users have cut themselves off from anything and anyone that might offend them, basically retreating into social media bubbles where everyone shares the same values and a dissenting opinion never rears its ugly head.  Perhaps it’s just human nature, but it seems we can’t avoid tribalism even on a digital landscape.

Zuckerberg seems to recognize this problem, and has ideas on how to address this kind of culture clash:

One of the things that we have struggled with recently is how do we have a set of community standards that can apply across a community of almost two billion people… The question is, in a larger community, how do you build mechanisms so that the community can decide for itself and individuals can decide for themselves where they want the lines to be? This is a tricky part of running this company…  We have come to this realization that a bunch of people sitting in a room in California is not going to be the best way to reflect all the local values that people have around the world. So we need to evolve the systems for collective decision making. It’s an interesting problem. There are certainly going to be a lot more global infrastructure and global enterprises going forward, there just hasn’t been anything at this scale yet.

Interestingly, in a way Zuckerberg has made an argument for federalism here–that a community is far better poised to make decisions for itself, rather than having a larger authority imposing a one-size-fits-all solution.  On the other hand, he also seems to be making the argument that it will probably be necessary to wall certain communities off from others, because their standards and beliefs are just too different to be compatible with one another.  Granted, he’s talking about the digital world here–but one could just as easily find a corollary in the real world, particularly in Europe where the refugee crisis is in the process of radically transforming the culture there.

Zuckerberg also addresses the issue of globalization, acknowledging that while there have been tremendous benefits from the free flow of goods and information, they have not come without a price:

A lot of the current discussion and anti-globalization movement is because for many years and decades, people only talked about the good of connecting the world and didn’t acknowledge that some people would get left behind. I think it is this massively positive thing over all, but it may have been oversold. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad—it can still be massively positive—but I think that you need to acknowledge the issues and work through them so it works for everyone.

It’s a pretty realistic assessment of where we are, and one of the few times I’ve heard the CEO of a major company talking about the downside of a global economy.  Whether Donald Trump’s trade policies will solve the problem remains to be seen–but given that a retreat from globalization was a winning theme of his campaign, and given the success of Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, there’s no doubt a lot of voters share the same concerns.

It’ll be interesting to see what Zuckerberg and Facebook have planned.

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Marc Giller

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