Each year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commits himself to a personal challenge – learning mandarin, reading a heap of books, building a personal assistant for his home. But this year, Zuckerberg’s challenge is a little closer to home, and more aligned with the wider goals of the empire he’s created.
After a year of controversy and questions about Facebook’s role in modern society, Zuckerberg has committed himself to fixing ‘important issues’ with the platform.
As noted by Zuckerberg:
“The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do - whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”
Essentially, these are the three challenges Zuckerberg – and Facebook more broadly – will be looking to focus on.
Protecting the Community
This was also a key focus of Zuckerberg’s revised mission statement, published last year, in which improving community participation was also a key element. Online abuse has long been an issue for every social platform, and Facebook’s been working to lead the way, through the use of artificial intelligence and automated means in an effort to eliminate such actions before users are exposed.
Facebook has also faced questions about the ways in which their advanced ad targeting systems can be used to single out certain groups, most notably based on race – something Zuckerberg seems to acknowledge in his post:
“…we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools”
The wider problem with that is that discriminatory or exclusion-based targeting will always be possible, whether directly labeled as such or not. While Facebook can remove discriminatory labels from their targeting groups, advertisers can still use wider qualifiers to the same effect, if they so desire.
Researchers found similar this week, by noting that images from Google Street View can be used to determine the voting preferences of different regions – based purely on the cars which appear in Street View images.
With so many data points available, discriminatory ad targeting will always be possible, to some degree, depending on how you chose to utilize the available audience qualifiers.
The focus on protection also likely relates to the ways in which Facebook has facilitated ‘filter bubbles’ which have enabled divisive groups to flourish. The solutions on this front are not easy – Facebook’s business model is built around showing you more of what you want to see, and less of what you don’t (or don’t agree with), but it’s good to see Facebook, or Zuckerberg at least, making this a priority.
Defending Against Interference by Nation States
This, too, will be a major challenge for Facebook moving forward – as noted, Zuck and Co. have built the most advanced ad targeting system ever created, with the ability to hone in on very specific audiences and sub-communities based on their everyday actions, including Likes, comments, reading time, etc.
Various studies have shown that your Facebook usage patterns can be indicative of personal preferences, and, on a wide enough scale, can even provide a more accurate representation of your psychological leanings than friends, family, even partners.
Given this has been known for some time (the above-mentioned study was published in 2014), it’s been somewhat surprising to see the rising outrage about how Facebook has been misused by tampering foreign organizations in order to influence societal behaviors.
With so much of our personal data being uploaded every day, it makes perfect sense for businesses and government organizations to use this to their advantage. Ideally, that advantage would come in the form of improved ad targeting (which, in itself, is a source of concern for many) or better allocation of civic resources. But you can’t have one without the other.
If there’s a way to utilize such data in a positive way, there’s also an equally potential negative.
Definitely, the abuse of Facebook’s platform by political organizations is a major concern, and one which will be very difficult to stamp out. Sure, you can ban all the accounts associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency, but they can start others – as Facebook’s detection systems improve, so too will the processes of those looking to use abuse them.
And as Facebook continues to grow – now up to 2.07 billion users – so too will its influence. Which then leads into the final element of focus for Zuckerberg in 2018.
Is Facebook Good or Bad?
The last element in Zuckerberg’s post relates to time spent on Facebook, and making sure that it’s time ‘well spent’.
There have long been questions about the potential negatives of Facebook usage, with many studies showing that The Social Network can cause significant psychological impacts for users.
Amid rising concerns about the platform’s influence last year, Facebook opted to tackle these issues head-on, releasing a report which acknowledged that Facebook use can have negative impacts. Facebook offered a fairly basic suggestion to help alleviate such problems - users simply need to interact more, as passive consumption of content is what causes issues - but still, it was the first time that Facebook had openly recognized that their platform may contribute to such issues.
Given the now ingrained use of Facebook, and the long-established links between social media (Facebook specifically) and mental issues, this may be the most difficult area for Zuckerberg to contend with. The very nature of Facebook is to showcase people’s lives, which, in turn, leads to people showcasing the best of their lives, which is the biggest source of such issues. Inevitably, seeing a highlight reel of your peers leads to comparison, and unfair comparison at that, given that you’re only seeing what each person wants you to see.
How can you shift the usage of the platform away from this? How can you encourage more perspective, or provide a more inclusive, wider angle view to ensure subconscious benchmarking doesn’t cause issue?
Of course, most of these will be beyond the capacity of Zuckerberg to fix, but making them a key focus is a good step for the CEO, and will no doubt help in pushing things forward on each front. But by confronting the negative elements of social media, Facebook is also being forced to confront flaws in its very system, the fundamental pillars on which The Social Network is built. In that, Facebook may realize that it simply can’t fix all these problems, they’re inherent in the processes they’ve created.
In this sense, Zuckerberg’s 2018 mission may, eventually, be seen as little more than a PR exercise, though the hope, obviously, is that more positive advances can be made.