Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s most powerful unelected person, but its crazy when he misrepresents what is happening on Facebook.
In an interview, Zuckerberg was asked big and delicate questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?
Zuckerberg said that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.
Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people.
It’s true but also ridiculously incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do.
Facebook regularly rewrites its computer systems to meet the company’s goals; the company might make it more likely that you’ll see a friend’s baby photo than a news article about wildfires. That doesn’t mean that wildfires aren’t real, but it does mean that Facebook is creating a world where the fires are not in the forefront.
Facebook’s ability to shape, not merely reflect, people’s preferences and behavior is also how the company makes money.
Facebook sells billions of dollars in ads each year because what people see there, and how Facebook chooses to prioritize that information, can influence what people believe and buy.
Facebook knows it has the power to shape what we believe and how we act. That’s why it has restricted wrong information about the coronavirus, and it doesn’t allow people to bully one another online.
An internal team of researchers at Facebook concluded that the social network made people more polarized, The Wall Street Journal reported in May. American society is deeply divided, but Facebook contributes to this too.
So why does Zuckerberg keep saying that Facebook is a mirror of society? Maybe it’s a handy media talking point that is intentionally uncomplicated.
There are no easy fixes to make Facebook or much of the world less contrasting and divided, but it’s dishonest for Zuckerberg to say his company is a bystander rather than a participant in what billions of people on its site believe and how they behave.
Zuckerberg knows, as we all do; the power that Facebook has to revise reality.