Who needs the White House when you've got Facebook? - Times LIVE
Tue May 30 15:03:35 SAST 2017

Who needs the White House when you've got Facebook?

James Titcomb | 2017-02-21 08:12:18.0
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. File photo

Just what exactly is Mark Zuckerberg up to? It is a question that watchers of Facebook and its increasingly statesmanlike chief executive have been asking a lot.

First he promised to give away almost all his wealth over the course of his lifetime, setting up a foundation that will funnel his $50-billion fortune into good causes. Then he announced plans to visit every US state this year in a "man of the people" drive to understand the parts of the US left behind by the modern world.

And last week he posted a 5700-word defence of globalism presented as Facebook's new "mission statement". Zuckerberg wrote that "across the world there are people left behind by globalisation, and movements for withdrawing from global connection", and said he wanted to "bring humanity together".

Speaking in such grandiose tones is above the usual CEO's pay grade. It has led to many suggestions that he harbours political ambitions.

It is an enticing idea: the Facebook founder as the young, brainy, globetrotting antidote to the current administration. But it's time to pour cold water on this fantasy. For one thing, Zuckerberg has repeatedly denied it - and did so again last week.

No, Zuckerberg does not want to be US president; at least not yet. Last week's letter was not a 2020 manifesto. However, if you have an interest in how the world's fifth-richest man sees the future of America's sixth-biggest company, it explained a lot.

Facebook has not had the easiest year. Yes, shares have surged, profits more than doubled, and almost two billion people now use Facebook every month. But its power and influence have come under intense scrutiny, most clearly around "fake news". Facebook was accused of helping spread false stories during the US election, shoving hoaxes in front of millions of readers' eyes and even influencing the vote.

Fake news has become a global issue, with fears that it will be used to hijack elections in France and Germany. Facebook faced parallel charges of over-censorship last year when it removed photos of war crimes and civil rights protests.

The company was also accused of neo-colonialism over attempts to provide people in India and elsewhere with free internet access, limited to Facebook and a few other websites.

Further battles can be expected. A US president who won power on a national security promise will be more forthright about accessing the wealth of personal data that tech giants have.

Facebook has been so successful at defeating its rivals that a change in public or political opinion is now its biggest threat. There is a feeling that its power is reaching a point where leaving it unchecked is uncomfortable.

Facebook's answer has been to downplay its influence: the defence has been that it has no agenda, it merely provides a platform, a blank canvas on which everything that appears is the responsibility of the users.

Last year a tide of criticism saw that excuse evaporate, and Zuckerberg's letter last week was an attempt to present a new vision that, instead of defusing criticism, turned it on its head.

Most of his essay was a sales pitch for all the ways Facebook can be a force for good.

Zuckerberg said his website could help restore local communities that have broken down and promised that Facebook could use artificial intelligence to fight terrorism and help victims of natural disasters. Most of what he wrote was about why Facebook should be more, not less, embedded in people's lives.

Zuckerberg has ambitions beyond those of most CEOs. But they are still ambitions for Facebook: to make it far more central to the lives of billions than it already is today.

He said that Facebook would help society reach the "next level", and that it would "build the new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come". Who needs the White House? In Zuckerberg's world, Facebook is bigger than that.

- ©The Daily Telegraph


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