"It was my mistake" - Facebook's Zuckerberg pleads 'mea culpa', but insists he's still the man for the job

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan April 4, 2018
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was sent out to field questions yesterday. Cue a lot of mea culpa and self-reproach, as well as a warning that this is going to take a long time to fix.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO

Following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on GDPR earlier in the week, I jokingly suggested on Twitter yesterday that maybe it might be an idea not to let him near a microphone for a while.

Just to prove that nobody listens to me, Facebook proceeded to do just the opposite, parading the under-fire company founder in a bid to clear-up a number of issues that have arisen since the data privacy practices meltdown kicked in a few weeks ago.

The decision to field questions came on the day that Facebook admitted that as many as 87 million users could have been affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That’s higher than the 50 million users figure that has been doing the rounds and a lot higher than the “no more than 30 million” that Cambridge Analytica pitched on social media as the crisis evolved.

A week before he faces questioning before a U.S. Congressional Committee, Zuckerberg was in a curiously schizophrenic mode - part mea culpa, part defiant. It’s a mix that was not successful in clearing up the mess the company finds itself in, but then that was unlikely to be the case.

There was penitence and a ‘we made mistakes’ pitch from the start as he said:

It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. That goes for Fake News, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, in addition to developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake.

So too was his 2016 dismissal of the concept of ‘Fake News’, he conceded:

I think at this point that I clearly made a mistake by just dismissing Fake News as “crazy”…People will analyze the actual impact of this for a long time to come, but what I think was clear at this point is that it was too flippant. I should have never referred to it as crazy.

In terms of learnings, he added, the understanding of corporate responsibility needs to be expanded:

It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure that people are not using that voice to hurt people or spread disinformation. And it’s not enough to give people tools to sign into apps, we have to ensure that all of those developers protect people’s information too. It’s not enough to have rules requiring they protect information, it’s not enough to believe them when they tell us they’re protecting information — we actually have to ensure that everyone in our ecosystem protects people’s information.

Electoral interference

Getting down to specifics, the controversial subject of how far Russia and Cambridge Analytica might have been able to influence the U.S. Presidential Election, among others, was addressed, just hours after Facebook shut down hundreds of accounts owned by a Russian ‘troll factory’, the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA). Zuckerberg said:

Identifying this network of fake accounts the IRA has been using so we can work to remove them from Facebook entirely. This was the first action we’ve taken against the IRA in Russia itself, and it included identifying and taking down Russian news organization that we determined were controlled and operated by the IRA.

He added:

Since we became aware of this activity, their activity after the 2016 US elections, we’ve been working to root out the IRA and protect the integrity of elections around the world. And since then there have been a number of important elections that we’ve focused on. A few months after the 2016 elections there was the French presidential election, and leading up to that we deployed some new AI tools that took down more than 30,000 fake accounts.

After that there was the German election, where we developed a new playbook for working with the local election commission to share information on the threats we were each seeing. And in the US Senate Alabama special election last year, we successfully deployed some new AI tools that removed Macedonian trolls who were trying to spread misinformation during the election.

This is going to be an ongoing battle, he argued, not something that can be cleared up overnight:

As long as there are people employed in Russia who have the job of trying to find ways to exploit these systems, this is going to be a never-ending battle. You never fully solve security — it’s an arms race. In retrospect, we were behind, and we didn’t invest enough in it up front. We had thousands of people working on security, but nowhere near the 20,000 that we’re going to have by the end of this year. So I am confident we are making progress against these adversaries. But they were very sophisticated, and it would be a mistake to assume that you can ever fully solve a problem like this, or think that they are going to give up and stop doing what they are doing.

It’s going to be a top priority to take this on this year, he added:

2018 is going to be an important year for protecting election integrity around the world. There’s the Mexican presidential election, there are big Presidential elections in India and Brazil, as well as Pakistan and Hungary and a number of other countries, and the US midterms, of course, too.

As for Zuckerberg’s comments this week that U.S. users won’t get the same GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) protections as their European counterparts, the CEO tried to have his cake and eat it:

Overall, I think regulations like the GDPR are very positive…We intend to make all the same controls and settings available everywhere, not just in Europe. Is it going to be exactly the same format? Probably not. We need to figure out what makes sense in different markets with the different laws and different places. But—let me repeat this—we’ll make all controls and settings the same everywhere, not just in Europe.

My take

So GDPR benefits will be the same in the U.S, just not the same format - whatever that means? Zuckerberg reckons he was misrepresented by Reuters. I know only too well that when people claim to be misquoted, all-too-often the reality is that they don’t like seeing written down a piece of messaging that they’ve failed to communicate properly.

And that I think sums up a lot of Zuckerberg’s performance on parade yesterday - some scripted messages, enough mea culpa to keep the wolves from the door for another day, but nothing inspirational enough to convince even the most gullible that Facebook is anywhere near out of the woods.

As for Zuckerberg himself, the question of his suitability to carry on as CEO has been the elephant in the room for weeks. It still is. He insisted:

I think life is about learning from the mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward. A lot of times people ask, “What are the mistakes you made early on, starting the company, or what would you try to do differently?” The reality of a lot of this is that when you are building something like Facebook that is unprecedented in the world, there are going to be things that you mess up. And if we had gotten this right, we would have messed something else up.

I don’t think anyone is going to be perfect, but I think what people should hold us accountable for is learning from the mistakes and continually doing better and continuing to evolve what our view of our responsibility is — and, at the end of the day, whether we’re building things that people like and that make their lives better. I think it’s important to not lose sight of that through all of this. I’m the first to admit that we didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibilities were.

So should he stay at the helm? He thinks so:

At the end of the day, this is my responsibility…I started this place. I run it. And I am responsible for what happens here… I still think that I’m going to do the best job to help run it going forward.

My two main takeaways? Firstly, on the matter of Zuckerberg’s future - that’s a decision that others are ultimately going to make. Secondly, he’s going to have to do a lot better than this next week in front of Congress.

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