Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg mounted a broad defence of social media on Thursday, taking on growing concerns about his company’s contribution to everything from recruitment by terrorists to the spread of fake news.
In a 5,700 word treatise posted on the social network, the 32-year-old founder also laid out ideas that could lead Facebook increasingly into new forms of social engineering, as it intervenes more directly to ensure that interactions on its site do not have negative effects.
These included using artificial intelligence to predict and head off harmful behaviour, while also enforcing the network’s social norms. AI could be used one day to identify potential suicides and other violent incidents before they occur, he said. And it could be used to enforce standards of behaviour reached through “a large-scale democratic process”.
Mr Zuckerberg’s lengthy treatise included a rare admission that “technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation”. However, he did not go on to explain what he thought the shortcomings were, and his manifesto, under the heading “Building Global Community”, was focused instead on ways Facebook could become more socially beneficial.
The Facebook chief has always been a zealous advocate for social networking, claiming at the time of the company’s initial public offering five years ago that the kind of “sharing” it facilitates would produce a “better world”. He described the company at the time as being on a “mission” to make the world “more open and connected”, and compared its impact to the invention of the printing press.
In Thursday’s post, Mr Zuckerberg tried to paint his greater focus on Facebook’s social impact as part of a natural evolution, as the network, which now has 1.9bn users a month, moves beyond its original mission of “connecting friends and family”. Instead, it is now thinking more about “developing the social infrastructure for community”, as social institutions that grew from an earlier era are replaced by a new and global digital society.
Mr Zuckerberg did not spell out all the specific criticisms that have been levelled against the social network, but his promised enhancements to the way it operates all touched on areas where it has been criticised.
These include claims that it weakens existing social bonds and facilitates online bullying; makes it easier for terrorists to spread propaganda; fuels fake news and “filter bubbles” that have left society more polarised; and weakens civic engagement by presenting the easy alternative of joining feel-good online protests.
Broad but mostly unspecific promises made in the post to enhance the world’s “social infrastructure” include a commitment to make it easier for Facebook users to find and belong to “strong groups” of like-minded people.
Mr Zuckerberg also repeated a recent promise to try to weed out the kind of false information that spread widely on Facebook ahead of the US presidential election last year. And he added to the list of negative effects that sharing on social media can have on the understanding of world events, warning that it encouraged the spread of sensationalised and simplistic reports that made society even more polarised.
Other areas singled out by the Facebook chief as ripe for more work included finding ways to encourage more people to vote, telling the difference between posts written by terrorists and innocent news reports about terrorism, and doing more to make networks more socially inclusive.
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