Mark Zuckerberg's rambling letter covers fake news on Facebook, nudity and profanity -- and his ego


In a lengthy missive that has been described by some as a manifesto, Mark Zuckerberg has written a counterattack to criticism of his beloved Facebook. He waxes lyrical about a rosy vision of the future in which communities come together, everyone is included, and everyone is empowered -- largely facilitated by him. For a man who denies he has political leanings, he certainly seems to have been studying Speaking Like A Politician 101. He is nothing if not almost impressively vague.

But when Zuckerberg is not massaging his own ego as he dreams up ways to save the world ("I hope we can come together to build a global community that works for everyone"), the content of the website he created still gets a mention. In the age of Trump there is endless talk of fake news, and Facebook has certainly played a role in helping this to spread. This, along with other problems, such as the spread of terrorist propaganda, is something Zuckerberg wants to combat, and he's placing a great deal of confidence in artificial intelligence and his beloved algorithms.

Spanning several thousand words, the epistle -- loftily entitled Building Global Community and addressed grandly "to our community" -- sets out a previously unmentioned mission statement: "Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation."

For all of his grand ideas about stopping pandemics, strengthening the fabric of society and tackling climate change, when it comes to Facebook all most people are concerned with is connecting with friends, sharing photos and reading news. Sandwiched between his egomaniacal rantings are a few paragraphs of some actual substance that most, or at least more, Facebook users will be interested in.

We have already seen numerous efforts on the social network to cut back on fake news, and these have had very limited success. The same goes for any automated system -- or, indeed, manual one -- for picking out objectionable content. Zuckerberg concedes -- thankfully -- that Facebook "is a work in progress, and we are dedicated to learning and improving."

There are billions of posts, comments and messages across our services each day, and since it's impossible to review all of them, we review content once it is reported to us. There have been terribly tragic events -- like suicides, some live streamed -- that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner. There are cases of bullying and harassment every day, that our team must be alerted to before we can help out. These stories show we must find a way to do more.

This is where Zuckerberg wants to lean heavily on AI.

Systems are being developed that will flag up photo and video content that may need manual review, although we're not told what sort of content it's looking out for. Similar systems are also being used to identify and differentiate between terrorist propaganda and stories about terrorism. The stumbling block here is that it's hard.

This is technically difficult as it requires building AI that can read and understand news, but we need to work on this to help fight terrorism worldwide.

He then goes on to talk about fake news.

The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding.

There is a very defensive tone when Zuckerberg says that Facebook has broadened, rather than narrowed, the range of news people are exposed to:

Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has. Even if most of our friends are like us, we all know people with different interests, beliefs and backgrounds who expose us to different perspectives. Compared with getting our news from the same two or three TV networks or reading the same newspapers with their consistent editorial views, our networks on Facebook show us more diverse content.

Recognizing that "there is not always a clear line between hoaxes, satire and opinion", he wants to fight hoaxes in the same way WhatsApp has fought back against spam. But in his usual placatory way, Zuckerberg wants to adopt an approach that will keep everyone happy -- ultimately meaning huge compromise from all sides:

In a free society, it's important that people have the power to share their opinion, even if others think they're wrong. Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item's accuracy.

This is something that will be aided by AI and algorithms, and it's an approach that Zuckerberg wants to use widely across Facebook:

The guiding principles are that the Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community, that each person should see as little objectionable content as possible, and each person should be able to share what they want while being told they cannot share something as little as possible. The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.

Quite who decides what classes as a cultural norm in an online community that is supposed to be massively diverse and inclusive is not clear, but this is a mere detail that Zuckerberg is happy to skirt around. One solution is to leave things to individuals, or individual Facebook communities.

The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don't need to dig around to find them. For those who don't make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.

In reality, Zuckerberg's letter comes across as less of a manifesto, and more the train-of-thought ramblings of someone desperate to have something to say. Desperate to be relevant and wanted. He's vague and non-specific and seems oblivious to the fact that many of the problems he talks about have been exacerbated by Facebook. He's not proposing solutions to an isolated problem, he's scrabbling to try to fix the mess he helped create.

With his concessions that major technological advances are needed for AI to be truly effective, he's free to dream his little idealistic dream without really having to worry about when, or if, they'll be implemented. Still… as long as the ad revenue keeps rolling in, eh?

Image credit: Zull Must / Shutterstock

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