Once upon a time, in the aftermath of a PR crisis, there were press conferences. Now, there are Facebook posts.
Nearly a week after Facebook’s VPN app, “Research,” was discovered paying users as young as 13 $20 a month to access, essentially, everything on their mobile devices (a practice that has reportedly gone on since 2016), Mark Zuckerberg has taken to his own platform to pen a response, that reads like a long-form blog post.
After briefly re-hashing Facebook’s origin story — it is the fifteenth anniversary of Facebook’s launch, after all, and it’s difficult to even begin imagining the last decade and a half without social media — Zuckerberg quickly pivots to what’s become a common talking point over the last few years: Yes, there are deep-seated ethical quandaries facing his platform, and yes, he will try to address the problems sometime, somehow, at some point.
But beyond these assurances, the post is less than contrite. In it, Zuckerberg highlights the dissolution of “traditional hierarchies…from government to media to communities and more.” But it’s not the dissolution itself that he considers negative. The opposite, actually; Zuckerberg writes that the breaking down of societal pecking orders has broadened the world, made it more accessible, made it driven by the individual, rather than the institution. He points to a memory from the early days of Facebook’s News Feed feature, when “millions of people” used the platform to organize marches against violence in Colombia.
“There is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative,” writes Zuckerberg. “And in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.”
In calling out “overly” critical responses from “some people,” it’s hard not to see Zuckerberg’s target being, at least in part, news outlets and journalists. Zuckerberg has steadfastly maintained that Facebook is a technology company and he, a tech CEO. It is not a media company, a point he made repeatedly during his testimony before Congress last April. Despite this insistence, Facebook is a major media distributor, a distributor that thinks, strategically, about what content it provides to readers. Last year, Facebook announced they had tweaked the News Feed algorithm to prioritize local news outlets. Meanwhile, a recent survey found that 45 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, a number that has consistently risen since the social media boom.
In today’s Facebook post, Zuckerberg seems to characterize the media as sore losers, or dinosaurs, stuck remembering the golden age of newspaper reporting. But just because Facebook was founded in a dorm room by a student in flip flops, ostensibly to facilitate basic human connection (and definitely not to rank hotties), doesn’t exempt it from dealing with its perceived intrusiveness or the misinformation on its platform.
If Facebook is serious about repairing its relationship with the public, Zuckerberg will need to stop characterizing its critics as negative nancies who are unable or unwilling to appreciate all the great ways that Facebook has improved our lives.