Mark Zuckerberg has frequently spoken of his unflinching conviction that Facebook FB -0.25% – with its mission of making the world more open and connected – is a force for good. His idealistic vision, however, has clashed with reality with increasing frequency, and the result is a growing tide of user mistrust that left unchecked, could wash over Facebook and erode its potential and relevance.
ZUCKERBERG IT SEEMS HAS NOTICED
Zuckerberg, it seems, has noticed. After months of public soul-searching – vowing to visit every state to better understand everyone and promising to fight fake news on the social network after downplaying its importance – Zuckerberg has penned an extraordinary, 5,800-word manifesto about Facebook’s place in the world and his vision of a more inclusive, supportive, informed and safe global community.
Some pundits have read Zuckerberg’s recent moves as laying the groundwork for a campaign for public office, perhaps even the presidency. Zuckerberg responded saying he has no interest in running for office. His manifesto lays the groundwork for a very different kind of campaign: he has taken to the bully pulpit to regain users’ trust. Zuckerberg concedes Facebook may not always get it right. It may sometimes be a place where bad things happen. But Zuckerberg wants it to be known that he means well and he’s trying – really, really trying – to use his nearly 2-billion-member social media platform to promote the public good.
Caring about what its users think, of course, is not new for Facebook. The company tracks a metric internally called “Cares About Us,” or CAU, as The Information earlier reported, essentially a net promoter score measuring whether users believe Facebook “cares” about them individually.
And Facebook has been running satisfaction surveys for years, asking users, for example, to pick which Facebook feature they think is in most need of improvement, or rate how much control they feel they have over their personal information on the site. If users’ don’t have enough trust and motivation to share on the platform, Facebook doesn’t just lose its potential to accomplish social good — it jeopardizes its entire value proposition and the foundation of its massive business, advertising.
Despite its focus on user sentiment, Facebook has recently made serious missteps, namely around managing sensitive content, misinformation and fake news. The company’s policies around violent live-streamed footage like suicides and shootings have generated controversy, as did Facebook’s removal of the iconic Vietnam War “Napalm Girl” photo (The company reinstated the image after intense backlash). Users have also become wary of filter bubbles and news feed’s design, which can serve users fake news directly alongside quality coverage, a problem that generated public outcry and debate about whether Facebook played a role in the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
FACEBOOK HAS SINCE LAUNCHED AN ENTIRELY NEW PROGRAM DEDICATED…
Facebook has since launched an entirely new program dedicated to addressing misinformation and hoax stories through efforts like third-party fact checking and safeguards to prevent fake news sites from using the social network to make money. And Facebook is investing in programs to promote news literacy and dialogue with publications.
But Zuckerberg’s manifesto suggests a far more significant effort by Facebook to wage a campaign for the public’s trust. Zuckerberg’s letter — the first time Zuckerberg formally updated Facebook’s mission statement since the company’s initial public offering — emphasizes a long-term plan to focus on “social infrastructure,” a vague phrase that seems to mean using Facebook’s digital tools to do good offline.
Making the case Facebook is trustworthy, Zuckerberg emphasizes the company’s intention to reach its goals with responsibility and users’ interests at the forefront. For example, when Zuckerberg writes about strengthening the “social fabric of communities” through Facebook groups, he notes that Facebook will rate the performance of the product moving forward based on how “meaningful” groups are to users, which he defines as groups that “make a notable difference in meeting people’s personal and spiritual needs.”
And when it comes to building safety tools, Zuckerberg says that he has personally directed Facebook to invest more in the space. His language also suggests that he sees a moral obligation for Facebook to do so, when he notes, “These stories show we must find a way to do more.” He uses similar language when writing about Facebook’s responsibility in distributing news, writing that Facebook intends to help support the news industry.
Zuckerberg also writes that there is a bigger purpose to users’ activity on Facebook than simply meeting their own needs. He says users’ participation on the social network can be used as a model for forming better governance structures at scale. He presents being engaged on Facebook as a contribution to creating a world that everyone likes. “I hope we have the focus to take the long view and build the new social infrastructure to create the world we want,” Zuckerberg writes in the close of his letter.
Some of the changes Zuckerberg proposes in his essay could drive real improvements. For example, Facebook plans to give users nuanced control over whether or not they see sensitive content like nudity, profanity, violence or graphic content. The feature will give users regular chances to update their preferences, or without a selection, will default to the content choices of the majority of users in their region. Zuckerberg also said Facebook will dedicate more resources to “safety” tools that can be used to mitigate bullying, for example, or the impact of crises.
While there are important, heartwarming stories about the benefits of Safety Check and Amber Alerts that have helped save lives, Facebook’s tools are also leveraged by bad actors. Facebook groups have been used as weapons bazaars by terrorists and for regular users to buy and sell guns, even though the company technically bans the practice. Clearly, the company has a long ways to go before becoming the type of platform for social good it says it wants to be.
Facebook noted in its latest annual report that ensuring its brand is seen as “trustworthy” is key to retaining and growing its user base, noting that many of its new users are referred by existing users.
“Maintaining and enhancing our brands is critical to expanding our base of users, marketers and developers,” the company said, noting that preserving its reputation among users and customers will “depend largely on our ability to continue to provide useful, trustworthy and innovative products.”
Facebook can’t survive without users’ satisfaction and attention — the basis of its entire business. Zuckerberg’s essay points to the company’s concern that users’ trust has been fading. Even though Facebook’s ubiquity and convenience are strong pulls for retaining users, trust is still a battle the social network can’t afford to lose.