Facebook regulation
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

This week, it seems, he is begging a world’s forgiveness for his inadvertent role in giving Trump a leg up. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness,” he wrote. A few months back, he was keen to give us all a glimpse of history, and truly understand how important Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to its flourishing.

Mark Zuckerberg. There’s a new kind of type.

The CEO and founder of Facebook is a rare and billionaire type to be sure, but one, thanks to his habit of being very typical very publicly, we can now identify. He doesn’t just want to make money, he tells us; he wants “to make the world a better place”. He’s yet to exceed the ambition of fellow type Elon Musk, who seeks direct democracy on Mars. But he’s only 33. He’ll get there.

When Zuckerberg was still in his 20s, a lad whose net worth tended to soar over weeks instead of hours, his type had not yet fully emerged. If we thought of him at all, it was roughly as the super-bright loner of The Social Network: a selfish, splendid brat who mimicked the business style of Steve Jobs. Jobs had famously refused to join the Giving Pledge, a group of billionaires who committed their funds to the needy. Whatever your views on philanthropy, you might care to admit: this took some big apples. For Jobs to declare only that he cared to accumulate wealth and had no interest at all in “giving back” was frank. Not a lot of that about in California.

[Off the Mark: ‘philanthropic’ Zuckerberg should leave democracy to the professionals]

Bill Gates did not beat Jobs to the smartphone, but he did develop the Silicon Valley billionaire prototype. Gates, whose copyright is arguably a source of global poverty and certainly the source of his wealth — he fought for it hard and once disparaged opponents of intellectual property, including those who resisted patents on expensive pharmaceuticals, “new modern-day sort of communists” — became a noted philanthropist. Certainly, the aims of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are noble. But there are those (former recipients of grants included) who reject the organisation’s clout. Bill gets to make decisions. Bill gets to persuade a vast audience that the world has never been “more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just” — claims that climate scientists and economists alike could counter. Bill gets a seat at Davos.

If these guys would just shut up and give, they might be more tolerable. One might forgive the rent-seeking and the fawning by news outlets that Jeff Bezos, briefly the world’s richest individual this year,  had “disrupted” philanthropy “with just one tweet”. Look. Let’s even set aside the many stories of harsh working conditions at Bezos’ Amazon. Let’s overlook the occasional habit of his Washington Post to ignore mere facts to better provide a chapter in the ongoing “Russians dunnit” fantasy US series. Heck, let’s not even think about the overwhelming support these chaps give to Universal Basic Income, a scheme, as it is posited by the type, designed largely to sustain Silicon Valley profits for a while in a West with fewer workers. Surely, it is now unproductive, possibly boring to the Crikey reader, to say, “Look. Those guys are hypocrites, or at best deluded about the economies their products, which now include financial services, are permitted to gear.”

[Rich, white finance sector men build their own ‘safe space’ on a floating tax haven]

Not to be a pessimist — so gauche in the age of Mars and Direct Democracy when we are safest from harm — but the billionaire class has its power. Zuckerberg is likely now somewhat statesmanlike, with his listening tours and his international friendships, not because he wants to run for president, as is rumoured. He is statesmanlike, as are Musk and Gates and co., because he is actually a statesman. A reversal of this governance by corporations would require years of rage and decades of reform. So, let’s aim lower than a Musky utopia. I say we simply quibble with one of them about very particular matters. Let’s start with Zuckerberg, as he seems young enough to be wounded by argument. And let’s just take him up on his latest post.

Reading between the divine lines, as many outlets have, what he offered this week was a promise to better control our news. He has said, in my view and in most, that he was sorry for letting Russian actors into Facebook. Let’s ask him for a full account, then, of who is permitted and is not permitted to occupy what he concedes is a common global space — that one that is going to make the whole planet better.

He has implied on this occasion that he has the means to make our news better. We must demand to know his plans. We’re not interested in pinching his proprietary algorithms, of course. Only a modern-day sort of communist would be interested in such theft. We simply wish to learn which sources he deems “divisive” and which he does not. Is critique of his friend Modi allowed in our common space, for example, and if so, is this critique still OK if it feels a bit Russian? And, as he has vowed to be better, will he amend that widely reported affinity the platform already has for our individual political views? Surely, there is little to keep me more divided from the opinion of others than my inability to access those opinions. Further, will large news organisations receive as little or as much Facebook space as us minnows?

If one has both the capacity and the will to change the world for the better, one must appear to address the will of that world. Let’s start asking some little questions every so often. Let’s ask him about his strategy to end “divisive” news. Or at least campaign for the introduction of a “Feeling Divisive” Facebook button.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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