My goal for this next decade isn't to be liked, but to be understood.
One half of that stated ambition from Mark Zuckerberg is more likely to come true than the other, but it was only a matter of time before the Facebook CEO’s mea culpa mission pivoted to his being a misunderstood fellow.
It’s an entirely common and over-used default position in crisis management - we weren’t bad/naughty/evil; we just didn’t explain our position clearly enough to the great unwashed. The Zuckerberg version of this is that he’s spent too much time trying to win our love and that’s got to change
One critique of our approach for much of the last decade was that because we wanted to be liked, we didn't always communicate our views as clearly because we were worried about offending people. So this led to some positive but shallow sentiment towards us and towards the company.
In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for. So we're going to focus more on communicating our principles, whether that's standing up for giving people a voice against those who would censor people who don't agree with them, standing up for letting people build their own communities against those who say that the new types of communities forming on social media are dividing us, standing up for encryption against those who say that privacy mostly helps bad people, standing up for giving small businesses more opportunity and sophisticated tools against those who say that targeted advertising is a problem, or standing up for serving every person in the world against those who say that you have to pay a premium in order to really be served.
These positions aren't always going to be popular, but I think it's important for us to take these debates head-on.
This year will throw up a big test for Zuckerberg’s claims as the US presidential campaigns heat up. Facebook’s role in the 2016 race remains mired in controversy and its recent insistence on not monitoring political abuse of its platform has done little to reassure sceptics that much will change in 2020. Zuckerberg inevitably begs to differ:
We're very focused on election integrity, and this is an area where I'm proud of the progress that we've made preventing foreign interference…After working to protect elections in countries across the world from the EU to India to Mexico to the US midterms for the past few years, we think our systems are now more advanced than any other companies. We're often alerting law enforcement and intelligence about threats that we identify. There's still going to be debate about what kinds of political speech should be allowed, especially as the 2020 elections heat up, but by any objective measure, our efforts in election integrity have made a lot of progress.
In 2016, I think it's very fair to say that we were behind where we needed to be, as with the rest of the industry and governments as well…Now the good news is that since then, it's not like this is the first presidential election that we've had to play a part in defending the integrity of. There have been major elections across the world, and each time, we're able to see the tactics of the foreign adversaries evolve. Because we and others weren't really focused on that in 2016 as much, we've been able to improve at quite a fast rate. There are also good partnerships in place now across the industry, across law enforcement, the intelligence communities, not just in the US, but across other countries, too. So I think the systems are much more robust.
You can look at the results in other elections around the world, for example, in the EU elections last year where a lot of people were very worried that there would be this kind of foreign interference. I actually had gone to the EU Parliament and testified about what we were going to do. And then I think the EU Parliament President after released a statement saying that we'd met our commitments and did the things that we said we were going to do, and it was a relatively clean election.
The challenges of outside interference remain, he admits:
We're going to continue seeing the adversaries get more advanced… it's not just Russia at this point. We've seen similar types of attempts from Iran, China and some places, others as well. So there's more to kind of look out for there. But overall, I do feel confident about where we are.
But as is increasingly the case, Zuckerberg leaves himself some handy wiggle room to limit Facebook’s responsibilities:
One of the things that I think we need to look out for, that the intelligence community has warned us about is some of the goal of some of these nation-state actors is not necessarily to interfere directly, but to just sow doubt about the legitimacy of an election. So even to the extent that we may not even see specific attacks, if there's a big meme that there is widespread interference, that has the same effect in terms of kind of sowing doubt about things.
It’s basically more of the ‘it’s up to others to regulate me’ meme that he’s been pitching since last year:
When it comes to these important social issues, I don't think the private companies should be making so many important decisions by themselves. I don't think that each service should have to individually decide what content or advertising is allowed during elections or what content is harmful overall. There should be a more democratic process for determining these rules and regulations. For these issues, it's not enough for us to just make principal decisions. The decisions also need to be seen as legitimate and reflecting what the community wants. And that's why I've called for clearer regulation for our industry.
As noted, it was only a matter of time before ‘nobody understands me’ became the order of the day. I’m irresistibly reminded of a petulant teen heading to his bedroom to slam the door in protest at annoying parental authorities who expect him to toe the line. But then adult supervision hasn’t been in evidence at Facebook for a long, long time.
One last point of note on that ‘Supreme Court’ initiative that Facebook made such a fuss about this week, the initiative that’s going to “uphold the principle of giving people a voice while also recognizing the reality of keeping people safe” as Zuckerberg once put it. In all the posturing and preening in this latest CEO outpouring about communicating good intent and standing up for the greater good, it wasn’t mentioned once. Not one word. Just an observation that might be worth keeping in mind as the new ‘tough love’ regime rolls out across the year.