Mark Zuckerberg's letter annotated: what he said and what he didn't

Guardian Web |

On our journey to connect the world, we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?

Mark Zuckerberg opens his missive with a grammatical ambiguity: who are “we”? Is this a letter to Facebook, or to the world? It can be read both ways. But regardless of the intended audience, there’s a subtext to the opening paragraph which informs the whole 5,700-word letter: for an increasing number of people, the answer to Zuckerberg’s question is “no”. Zuckerberg wants for more than Facebook to be an insanely profitable mega-corporation. He wants the company to be seen as a force for good in the world, and right now, he’s concerned that it isn’t.

History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers -- from tribes to cities to nations.

This is the Facebook theory of history, and it’s a long way from “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. But it sets the scale of Zuckerberg’s thinking: he genuinely views Facebook as a new paradigm for the organisation of human civilisation.

I am reminded of my favorite saying about technology: “We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years.”

Strangely, Zuckerberg declined to cite the author of this “saying”: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who wrote those words in his 1996 book, the Road Ahead. Perhaps he wants to avoid comparisons between the two men, who are increasingly alike, just 20 years apart.

In times like these, 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 … Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation.

This is the new mission statement for Facebook. It’s more nuanced than “connect the world”, and shows much greater self-awareness than “move fast and break things”. But is it too self-apologetic? It’s hard to imagine anyone at Facebook being motivated by such a caveated principle.

Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs.

Zuckerberg identifies “five important questions” for Facebook to answer; the first is how to build “supportive communities”.

We recently found that more than 100 million people on Facebook are members of what we call “very meaningful” groups. These are groups that upon joining, quickly become the most important part of our social network experience and an important part of our physical support structure … Going forward, we will measure Facebook’s progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall.

The first of the odd switches in tone, as Zuckerberg shifts from huge statements for how to change Facebook’s impact on the world to an announcement of a different internal metric. Those “very meaningful” groups certainly sound like a smart thing for Facebook to focus on, but it’s not immediately clear how much Facebook can influence their creation: how many of these groups are created by Facebook, rather than just being groups which would have existed since time immemorial, now being organised on Facebook?

We plan to build more tools to empower community leaders to run and grow their groups the way they’d like, similar to what we’ve done with Pages … We plan to expand groups to support sub-communities … We can design these experiences not for passive consumption but for strengthening social connections.

The odd shift in focus continues. A significant chunk of the letter is spent discussing fairly niche product refreshes. It might be important for Facebook’s long-term strategy, but it feels disconnected from the earlier lofty rhetoric.

To help during a crisis, we’ve built infrastructure like Safety Check so we can all let our friends know we’re safe and check on friends who might be affected by an attack or natural disaster. Safety Check has been activated almost 500 times in two years and has already notified people that their families and friends are safe more than a billion times

The letter shifts to something in the vein of a pre-emptive apology, basically here to remind you that Facebook is good. But Safety Check hasn’t been the PR slam-dunk it might seem it was. Initially, the product opened Facebook up to accusations of racism, since it had to be manually activated by Facebook staff, leading to a perception that attacks on developed nations received priority treatment. Then, when it was automated, it helped spread false reports of an attack in Thailand that never actually happened.

Looking ahead, one of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand more quickly and accurately what is happening across our community. There are billions of posts, comments and messages across our services each day, and since it’s impossible to review all of them, we review content once it is reported to us. There have been terribly tragic events -- like suicides, some live streamed -- that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner. There are cases of bullying and harassment every day, that our team must be alerted to before we can help out. These stories show we must find a way to do more. Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach. We are researching systems that can look at photos and videos to flag content our team should review. This is still very early in development, but we have started to have it look at some content, and it already generates about one-third of all reports to the team that reviews content for our community. It will take many years to fully develop these systems. Right now, we’re starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda.

Here we have the first mention of artificial intelligence as the future solution for a myriad of problems. It is a recurring theme throughout the letter: a difficult problem gets punted to the AI team to be solved at some point that even Zuckerberg acknowledges may be far off. Some of these problems will be successfully tackled by improved AI, but others won’t. The propaganda problem, for instance, seems extraordinarily hard. Does the prospect of future solutions mean Facebook can get away with not acting in the meantime?

The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding.



Almost exactly in the middle of the letter, surrounded by explanations of all the good things Facebook does, we get on to the section which is why this letter exists in the first place. Facebook’s effect on the generation of fake news and filter bubbles has sparked consternation worldwide, with the site being directly blamed for “radicalisation” of the far right in multiple nations. It has concerned Facebook executives at the highest levels, including Zuckerberg. But the question is, do they accept the accusations? And what are they going to do about them?

Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has. Even if most of our friends are like us, we all know people with different interests, beliefs and backgrounds who expose us to different perspectives. Compared with getting our news from the same two or three TV networks or reading the same newspapers with their consistent editorial views, our networks on Facebook show us more diverse content.

This is a bold claim, and one many media experts would dispute. Facebook is good at giving multiple sources, but is it really good at giving “different perspectives”? Experiments designed to reflect political polarisation suggest maybe not : the newsfeed algorithm acts to concentrate viewpoints like little before. Even if you do have friends and family members with different interests and backgrounds, Facebook will hide those differences from you in order to give you the News Feed you’re comfortable with.

But our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this. Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign. A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.

Even if Facebook doesn’t actually show different perspectives, Zuckerberg is arguing, that may not be a problem. Maybe those different perspectives could lead to more polarisation, not less? It feels a bit like the classic lawyer’s argument: the discourse isn’t broken, and if it is, my client didn’t do it, and if they did, it was a good thing anyway.

Accuracy of information is very important. We know there is misinformation and even outright hoax content on Facebook, and we take this very seriously … Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy.

The other side of the polarisation problem: “fake news”. Facebook is in a tricky position, and Zuckerberg knows it The firm can’t deny that it’s a problem that Macedonian teens can make up stories for an audience of millions, mediated almost exclusively by Facebook. But the term “fake news” is so contested that any solution will inevitably fall far short of satisfying everyone.

We noticed some people share stories based on sensational headlines without ever reading the story. In general, if you become less likely to share a story after reading it, that’s a good sign the headline was sensational.

Facebook’s News Feed tweaks can seem small, but their changes reverberate throughout the media world with enormous effects, bankrupting some outlets while heaping windfalls on others. This particular tweak seems smart.

A strong news industry is also critical to building an informed community. Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it. There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable -- from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on.

This feels like a nice sleight-of-hand. Unlike much of the rest of the letter, which follows pattern of acknowledging a problem before presenting a (potential) solution, this is just the problem: Zuckerberg doesn’t really have any ideas about how to solve it.

The vast majority of conversations on Facebook are social, not ideological. They’re friends sharing jokes and families staying in touch across cities. They’re people finding groups, whether they’re new parents raising kids or newly diagnosed patients suffering from a disease together. Sometimes it’s for joy, coming together around religion or sports. And sometimes it’s for survival, like refugees communicating to find shelter.

In other words, worrying about the corrosive effect of Facebook on political discourse is for the metropolitan liberal elite. Most of what Facebook is used for doesn’t as adverse effects, so just cheer up and click “like” on a baby photo.

Our society will reflect our collective values only if we engage in the civic process and participate in self-governance. There are two distinct types of social infrastructure that must be built: The first encourages engagement in existing political processes: voting, engaging with issues and representatives, speaking out, and sometimes organizing. Only through dramatically greater engagement can we ensure these political processes reflect our values. The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.

This is how Facebook wants to be thought of when it comes to politics Rather than a passive funnel through which distorted news arrives at people’s screens, it wants to be an active location for political engagement.

First, our community is evolving from its origin connecting us with family and friends to now becoming a source of news and public discourse as well … Second, our community spans many countries and cultures, and the norms are different in each region … Third, even within a given culture, we have different opinions on what we want to see and what is objectionable … Fourth, we’re operating at such a large scale that even a small percent of errors causes a large number of bad experiences.

Zuckerberg has identified the problems faced by Facebook’s censorship regime. For some, there’s an easy solution, such as tweaking the community standards to allow more boundary-pushing imagery with strong news value. For others, there’s a more hand-wavy solution: AI again. At some point in the future.

The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them … With a broader range of controls, content will only be taken down if it is more objectionable than the most permissive options allow … It’s worth noting that major advances in AI are required to understand text, photos and videos to judge whether they contain hate speech, graphic violence, sexually explicit content, and more. At our current pace of research, we hope to begin handling some of these cases in 2017, but others will not be possible for many years.

Again, Zuckerberg acknowledges these are really hard technological problems and any easy AI-based solutions are a long way off. Zuckerberg seems to be hoping concerned users will accept “we’re trying” as an acceptable position for Facebook to take.

I am reminded of President Lincoln’s remarks during the American Civil War: “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew.”

Zuckerberg’s final section ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which has renewed speculation that his new interest in addressing political problems is a lead-in to a presidential campaign in 2024. But the letter as a whole suggests a more nuanced reading While the Facebook chief executive is undoubtedly considering an entry into political life, he is also recognising that running the world’s largest social network is effectively a political career in itself. Maybe in Zuckerberg’s vision of history, after tribes and cities and nations, comes Facebook. There, he is already the leader.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer

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