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I’ve long suspected that Mark Zuckerberg, who often refers to himself as the “leader” of Facebook, has dreams of high office.
This week, a taster of what that might be like has been knocking at his door in the wake of the US election result.
While Donald Trump’s visit to the White House was an apparently sobering experience about the level of responsibility he’d soon inherit, Zuckerberg has had a brutal political awakening of his own.
Facebook’s “fake news” crisis has had the normally stoic 32-year-old visibly irritated, and that’s because for the first time he is being treated like a politician, rather than just a tech CEO.
With that comes distrust and anger, not to mention disloyalty in the Facebook ranks and what for him must be the growing realisation that it’s impossible to please everyone.
Whether Zuckerberg was right to say fake news had little impact is largely irrelevant. By dismissing it apparently without second thought as “crazy”, he attracted a global pitchfork of people demanding that he at the very least acknowledge the potential role his empire had in Donald Trump’s election win.
That interview, carried out by journalist David Kirkpatrick, also contained one other exchange which should give Zuckerberg some serious food for thought – and may even represent the biggest threat the network and its leader is yet to face.
Checks and balances
Kirkpatrick first laid out the context.
Facebook, he said, was the most influential commercial enterprise ever created, with unparalleled power that is yet to be fully understood.
Zuckerberg himself is a multi-billionaire in charge of a network that has intricate personal data on 1.8 billion people and counting.
“What are the checks and balances that need to exist for this new kind of entity?” asked Kirkpatrick.
“Do you think about that? At the moment it seems like you are the check and balance.”
Zuckerberg’s answer didn’t come close to addressing the question. He said it was about “listening to what people want”, and continuing to give people “the power to share” and to make “the world more open and connected”.
But is he confident the checks and balances are in place to stop Facebook over-stepping the mark?
“I mean… yeah,” he said, peering out into the audience for support.
Even though I was watching via a live stream, I could tell the room took an awkward turn. Kirkpatrick moved on – but the issue won’t.
The accountability gap
The exchange had touched upon a problem that surely deserves more attention.
There’s an urgent accountability gap between what technology companies do and what the public is allowed to know.
This isn’t about giving up trade secrets. You can inspect KFC’s kitchen without knowing the Colonel’s secret recipe.
It’s about being able to examine the reach and influence of technology companies, where supremely powerful men, and a few women, are able to control without any genuine scrutiny other than what appears every three months on a company earnings sheet (and even that’s unnecessarily cryptic).
Revealing moments like the one Kirkpatrick summoned from the usually robotic Zuckerberg are few and far between. The depressing accepted reality in technology journalism is that if you give a company a hard time, they’ll shut you out.
And that’s because many major technology companies guard their work with barbed wire, and wrap their executives in cotton wool.
Interactions between big tech and the outside world are orchestrated and engineered to the nth degree. On those rare occasions, even the mildest scrutiny about anything other than the new product being flogged that day is swiftly shot down with tech’s unofficial motto.
“Sorry… but that’s not what today is about.”
So what, you might think. So what if technology companies want to keep their affairs to themselves – it’s not a public service or anything.
You might also think that this is a technology journalist throwing his connected toys out of his smart pram – and for the most part you’d be right, I’m not ashamed to say.
But what Facebook’s challenges over fake news reveal, I think, is that we’re in completely uncharted territory.
Never has any private company had such immediate power over the way we act, feel, think, date, buy, fight – whatever.
And it’s impossible, if you plan on living in the modern world, to avoid Facebook or Google.
Even if you never create a Facebook account, your browsing habits will be logged when you visit pages that contain the Facebook ‘like’ button. Google’s near-$500bn value is made up almost entirely from selling advertising, which is why they’re absolutely everywhere on the internet. It’s the scale that makes the money.
How the internal cogs of these sites work is a complete mystery. My colleague Rory Cellan-Jones’ recent radio documentary into Google summarised that its algorithm was so complex that no single person could possibly grasp how it worked.
This situation, this imbalance, will surely not be able to last much longer. While technology bosses, Zuckerberg in particular, talk about their “mission” to “connect the world”, we do know that under their watch unacceptable things do take place.
Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, for instance, we know that Google at one time scooped up private wi-fi data from homes as it carried out its Street View trips. We know that Facebook knowingly manipulated News Feeds in an attempt to alter users’ emotions.
You can see how both of those examples could have seemed harmless – or at least fascinating – to the engineers involved.
But what they demonstrate is that what may seem a bright idea for the tech sites may be directly at odds for what is good for the users themselves.
One person in agreement with this is Zuckerberg, in 2009 at least. That was when Facebook was at around 200m users, and he posted a video message (in a shirt and tie!) saying how he wanted users to have a bigger say in how the site is governed.
Zuckerberg’s political ambitions, if he has them, are off to a very rocky start. The fake news row was a big test, and he handled it poorly – dragging out the issue in the news agenda for well over a week.
Had he been thinking like a politician, as he now must, things could have gone differently. The new reality for Zuckerberg is that it’s no longer okay to be an awkward tech nerd. Instead he must deal with his users’ concerns with respect, and not call them “crazy”.
There’s a lot in it for him to get things right. Zuckerberg’s global ambitions will live or die on his ability to be an astute political operator. He already played a bad hand in India, where local businesses said he was harming their chances online.
If Facebook is to hit the potential of connecting the unconnected, Zuckerberg will need to think like a world leader and engage in soft power and openness in order to build, or restore, trust.
And he must stop using “increased engagement” as the key metric for Facebook’s success. What’s popular isn’t always good, and what’s good isn’t always popular.
Zuckerberg’s record on dealing with controversy has been pretty solid, and there’s of course no suggestion he has any bad intentions with Facebook.
But this week has demonstrated that it’s simply no longer enough for Zuckerberg to deny an issue and expect people to blindly take his word for it. Even if he is right, he’ll have to learn how to prove it.
Because the message the public appears to have given Zuckerberg, and perhaps all of Silicon Valley, is that when you’re unfathomably powerful, “no comment” is fast becoming not good enough.