“You Don’t Get to 500 Million Friends Without Making a Few Enemies,” read the movie marquee poster for “The Social Network,” the 2010 Academy-Award nominated film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Nine years later, the numbers need to be updated.
Because there are now more than 2.3 billion persons worldwide who use Facebook.
And unfortunately for Zuckerberg, he seems to have more than a few enemies.
Or at least critics — including Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder who confounded many with a commentary he wrote for last Sunday’s New York Times.
“It’s Time To Break Up Facebook,” read the headline, in which Hughes wrote that since seeing his old college roommate two summers ago, “Mark’s personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook has taken a nose-dive. The company’s mistakes — the sloppy privacy practices that dropped tens of millions of users’ data into a political consulting firm’s lap; the slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention — dominate the headlines.”
Indeed, the social-media site is so scandal-scarred that CNN felt it necessary to create a chronology called “Facebook’s Bottomless Pit of Scandals.”
Responding to Hughes’ provocative column, a companion counterpoint — “Breaking Up Facebook Is Not The Answer” — ran alongside. It was written by Nick Clegg, Britain’s former deputy prime minister who’s moved from P.M. to P.R. duties as Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications.
“Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies, Clegg wrote.
“With great success comes great responsibility,” said Clegg. “While we operate under more regulation now than at any point in the history of the company, we believe more should be done.” And in fact, Facebook “is in the unusual position of asking for more regulations, not less.”
If not more regulation, at least reform is needed, wrote New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who also took to the pages of Sunday’s Times to pen a piece titled “We Can End the Era of Live-Streamed Violence.”
Reflecting her nation’s mosque-massacre ordeal, Ardern recounted that beyond the 51 lives lost and 39 injured, the attack “was part of a horrifying new trend that seems to be spreading around the world: It was designed to be broadcast on the internet.”
Ardern added that before the original footage was scrubbed by Facebook, some 4,000 views occurred, and that within the first day of the shootings 1.5 million copies of the video had to be taken down. During the same time, there was one upload per second on YouTube.
And it’s not over, according to GiPEC, a cyberintelligence firm, which found two videos available on both Instagram and Facebook as recently as Wednesday, two months after the attack.
Ardern gained acclaim for her empathy toward Christchurch’s Muslims and her leadership in New Zealand’s Parliament to pass a law banning the type of weapon used in the attack. “But the terrorist’s other weapon,” she wrote, “was live-streaming the attack on social media to spread his hateful vision and inspire fear.”
Social media, Ardern wrote, “connects people. And so we must ensure that in our attempts to prevent harm that we do not compromise the integral pillar of society that is freedom of expression. But that right does not include the freedom to broadcast mass murder.
“Our aim may not be simple, but it is focused: to end terrorist and violent extremist content online,” wrote Ardern, who added: “This can only be done if we collaborate.”
So she tried to do just that, meeting with like-minded leaders in Paris on Wednesday. This nexus of cyber conflict and geopolitics — which is also the topic of this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — reflects world leaders’ alacrity that democracies are vulnerable, with next week’s European Parliament elections just the latest worry. Citizens are concerned globally, too: A new Pew Research Center poll across 11 emerging economies reports that while 57% agree that social media gives ordinary people a “meaningful choice in the political process,” 65% also say there is an increased risk that people “may be manipulated by domestic politicians.”
The product of the Paris meeting was the “Christchurch Call,” which includes a nine-point plan to take on extremist and violent online content. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and, yes, Facebook, signed on and said in a joint statement that “it is right that we come together.”
But not every nation did, including, consequentially, the U.S.
The Trump administration said in a statement that “the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement” and that “the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”
Productive speech is not usually the president’s priority, as evidenced by his denigration of the news media with Stalinist phrases like “enemy of the people.” Instead, on the same day the White House wouldn’t answer the Christchurch Call, it issued a call of its own. But rather than addressing the base motivations of extremists, it played to its political base concerned over mostly baseless reports that social media sites are constricting conservatives.
“SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” a new online tool states. “Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies. No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.”
Trump himself recently shared his story with Twitter’s CEO. But it reportedly was less about extremists hijacking social media and more about the president losing Twitter followers.
The lack of leadership in the nation’s political capital can’t be matched by the world’s technology capital. So it’s encouraging that tech execs have at least reluctantly recognized the need to act — even if the motivation may be more monetary than moral as social media firms try to stave off states regulating a response.
As for the U.S. government, the administration is unlikely to take Hughes’ advice. So social, economic and political pressure will be on Facebook to face these challenges more vigorously.
Maybe what’s needed is for Zuckerberg to channel his chosen word — domination — to solve the problem.
“From our earliest days, Mark used the word ‘domination’ to describe our ambitions, with no hint of irony or humility,” Hughes wrote.
If a Harvard undergrad can dominate a world-changing technological transformation, he can dominate ways to prevent his invention from further devolving into the antisocial network.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.