Facebook's value(s)

At 2.2 billion daily active users, Facebook has become the largest social construct in human history; To this date, no tribe or country has ever been comprised of a larger number of individuals. This makes Facebook the most diverse community, including users of all ages, backgrounds, ideals, virtues, and values. Founder Mark Zuckerberg's recent post highlights the benefits of connecting people, giving a voice to the marginalized, a power to those who otherwise would have to struggle through hierarchies to make themselves heard. He writes:

Much of people's experience in the past was defined by large hierarchical institutions -- governments, mass media, universities, religious organizations -- that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible. If you wanted to progress, you worked your way up the ladder slowly. If you wanted to start something new or spread a new idea, it was harder without the blessing of these institutions.

As for many liberal millennials like myself, these words resonate with their humanitarian and environmentally-conscious values, which are based upon ideas first conceived in the 1960s: Everybody is equal; Social and environmental justice for those who cannot fight for their rights; Deep, human connections that lead to love and peace. No other song summarizes these egalitarian values better than John Lennon's “Imagine”, where one of the verses goes:

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people living life in peace.

With Facebook's reach across jurisdictions, countries, religions, and cultures, Mark Zuckerberg's invention seems to have brought the egalitarian idea(l)s of the 1960s to fruition. Finally, everybody's voice is equally loud by default. Thus, Facebook furthers the final dissolution of all cultural boundaries and hierarchies.

Hierarchies, however, are not always oppressive, and absolute equality, or equivalency, not always liberating. Should a Facebook post highlighting the latest research on the effects of climate change have the same weight as an equivalent post calling for the expulsion and genocide of Myanmar's Rohingya? Should false information labeled as facts, or peoples' opinions, have the same reach as reproducible research, or a well-cited opinion-editorial? A complete laissez-faire approach spirals down towards complete equivalence, as was Facebook's de-facto policy prior to the uncovering of the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, where the flood of fictional arguments drowned out actual facts. The liberty to use evidence-based and fictional statements interchangeably is not a freedom at all, but highly oppressive in that it destroys informed choices of the masses, a corner stone of a functioning democracy. The issue of fake facts did not arise as long as Facebook limited its user base to academia, where the idea for the platform was conceived and where people's values were more homogeneous and mostly egalitarian. Facebook seems overwhelmed by the fact that a now diverse platform amplifies voices that embrace significantly different values, including those of exclusion, nationalism, and exploitation.

What to do when the tool that was built upon the values of freedom, the right to free speech, and equality ironically becomes the uncensored, unfiltered channel to distribute falsehoods promoting opposing values, such as nationalism, racism, and bigotry? I would argue that the answer lies in the false understanding of equality. Equality does not automatically call for equivalence, especially not in the context of truth, facts, and even values. Everybody deserving a voice does not equal everybody's voice to be equally true or equally acceptable in a society, especially if that society encompasses 2.2 billion people from all over the globe. Instead of sticking with the current policy of equivalency, which will not differentiate between fact and fiction and between acceptable and unacceptable values, and instead of going back to a hierarchical system that is top-down and outright dismissive of all values other than its own, censoring actual facts accordingly, a new form of policy might combine the benefits of both. A policy that empowers the individual, yet holds them responsible in accordance with societal achievements and lessons from the past. Archaic concepts such as “reputation” and “honor” led to atrocities and bloodshed, but they may be integrated in a modern way that complements, rather than opposes this generation's humanitarian values. One could, for example, require social media accounts to be fully verified with a passport and certain features - such as posting articles or media to a large group of people - may require the person to have a background in journalism, especially when the post is meant for people outside the inner circle of friends. Alternatively, Facebook could automatically fact-check posts and assign accuracy-scores, which then automatically determine how many people certain posts can reach. Once certain objective credentials relating to credibility and reputation rather than world view are met, however, an environment free of censorship could help promote different voices, the purest version of social media. Suggesting that people share even more data with Facebook, such as personal identification leads to issues of privacy and points directly to the reason why Facebook is unable, by design, to make any meaningful changes.

Facebook's executives repeat calls that “things will be better in the future” and “everything is fine if it was not for some naysayers” ring hollow. It seems to me that Facebook's organizational transformation necessary to overcome its current issues is arrested by conflicting values within its own company. By turning Facebook into a public company, Mark Zuckerberg's egalitarian founding values were diluted. Originally, Facebook was a platform to connect people, best described by his post in light of Facebook's 15th anniversary. Mark Zuckerberg explains:

Before the Internet, if you had different views or interests from the people in your neighborhood, it was harder to find a community that shared your interests. If someone you knew moved away, you'd often lose touch. If you wanted to raise attention for an issue, you usually had to go through politicians or the press -- someone with the power to distribute your message.

By adding the values of maximizing profit and stockholder value, Facebook took on weight that now makes it next to impossible to go through the internal transformation from egalitarian (“social media without differentiation”) to post-egalitarian values (“objectively and openly differentiated social media”). Requiring identifications and credentials to use Facebook, for example, would be absolutely frightening in context of the current prevalence of privacy violations, which are all intrinsically linked to Facebook striving to maximize profits. If Facebook still valued its users and the benefit of the common good over money, it would be unavoidable to change its business model. Advertising money and harvesting users’ data are in direct opposition in finding a clear voice on its values. If Facebook changed its business model away from 3rd party sources, for example by charging people a small participation fee, the protection of peoples’ private data and the introduction of new standards that control the quality of posts and their distribution would be difficult, but possible in principle. In such a system, Facebook could not continue making 55 billion USD per year from advertising (at a 45% profit margin, 2018), but would have to charge each of its users approximately $25 a year, which would probably result in a stark drop in user numbers. Lowering the profits, for example by charging only $1 a month and thus only covering its running costs, would be impossible for investors to accept.
Overcoming the value-challenge Facebook is currently faced with would be hard enough for any large group of people, but with investor interests reflected so strongly, the only thing Facebook's management seems to be able to agree upon are the hollow words and promises for the future. Instead of taking bold steps that would fix Facebook systematically, Facebook employs teams of censors, so-called moderators, to try to outsource the value-question and pacify critics, a stop-gap solution at best. If and how Facebook will maneuver itself out of this situation is to be seen, but may well serve as a blueprint for other companies that face similar struggles. The beauty of evolution, however, is that things that work persist, whereas things that do not work perish. For Facebook, the current struggle for survival may either make it adapt and become a leader in this field of post-egalitarian values, or it will be surpassed by the next generation of social network that is built upon a solution that works.