Mark Zuckerberg stoked anger by trying to deflect Facebook's problems on 'the internet'

Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty ImagesMark Zuckerberg celebrated Facebook’s 15th birthday with a blog post.
  • Mark Zuckerberg posted a blog post on Monday celebrating Facebook’s 15th anniversary.
  • Critics have homed in on an element of Zuckerberg’s rhetoric that they argue misleadingly conflates Facebook with the internet.
  • Zuckerberg also seemed to juxtapose social networks with institutions like government.

Mark Zuckerberg has angered commentators by seeming to conflate Facebook with the internet at large.

In a post marking Facebook’s 15th birthday, Zuckerberg on Monday tried to emphasise the positive. He first alluded to concerns surrounding Facebook but pulled the internet as a whole into the discussion.

Here’s an excerpt from the 1,000-word post, emphasis ours:

“As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society – from government to business to media to communities and more – there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasise the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.”

Commentators have dissected this line, accusing Zuckerberg of deliberately muddling his company with the internet as a way of sidestepping blame.

“By turning the focus away from Facebook to ‘the internet’ you try to fool us into conflating the two,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” wrote in The Guardian.

The Guardian’s tech reporter Alex Hern also highlighted Zuckerberg’s conflation. “If you think, say, pushing all interpersonal communication through a curated newsfeed designed to reward sensationalism is ‘mostly harmful to society’… that’s not really a criticism of ‘the internet.’ It’s a criticism of *Facebook*,” he tweeted.

“The fact is that the structure and function of Facebook is antithetic to the ideology of the internet,” Vaidhyanathan added. He also admonished Zuckerberg for playing down his own power to govern the social network.

Gizmodo’s Rhett Jones pointed out that even in the context of most CEOs, Zuckerberg commands an unusual amount of autonomy owing to the fact he controls 60% of the company’s voting shares.

Zuckerberg’s assertion that “networks of people replace traditional hierarchies” was also questioned. He seems to paint Facebook and institutions as diametrically opposed, whereas recent history has shown that Facebook is as much a tool for oppressive governments as it is for individuals. To name one example, in November, Facebook acknowledged having been used in the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar.

“Ask the networks of people fleeing Western Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh because ‘traditional hierarchies’ – Myanmar’s Buddhist clerisy and the military junta – declared a campaign of genocide against them using the very features of Facebook that you claim have liberated the world,” Jones wrote.

Vaidhyanathan went further still, saying Facebook was itself a hierarchical institution. “Your company hosts ‘networks of people’ but they interact on your terms, managed by your rules and algorithms,” he wrote. He also pointed out that Facebook influenced public policy with its teams of lobbyists.

Business Insider reached out to Damian Collins, the British politician heading up Parliament’s investigation into Facebook, “fake news,” and foreign interference, to ask his opinion of Zuckerberg’s anniversary blog post.

Collins responded in an email:

“Mark Zuckerberg says he believes technology is reshaping society ‘to be more open and accountable,’ yet why is he as one of the worlds leading technologists so hidden and unaccountable. He should open himself up for questioning by appearing to give evidence at the UK parliament or in front of our international grand committee of lawmakers from around the world.

“Mark Zuckerberg wrongly believes that people who are critical of companies like Facebook ‘lament the change’ that technology is bringing to society. This is not true, what we lament is that the big tech companies don’t do more to protect their users from harmful and misleading content. The Facebook business is built on gathering vast quantities of data about its users, which it then makes money out of by selling these users as audiences to advertisers. If Facebook can help match their users with the perfect pair of shoes, surely they can do more to identify young and vulnerable people who are engaging with harmful content.

“Mark Zuckerberg states that social media is ’empowering people,’ but there is nothing empowering about the Facebook ad check team failing to stop a Russian agency from running adverts targeting American voters using fake accounts. The proliferation of disinformation through social media is undermining democracy because it has become far too easy for people to mislead others, divide communities and spread messages of hate.

“If companies like Facebook rigourously enforced their own community guidelines then most of the harmful content on their sites wouldn’t be there. But the truth is they don’t do enough to combat things they know are bad. That’s why we can’t leave it to them, and we need to establish a legal code of conduct for tech companies which should be enforced by an independent regulator. The Digital Culture Media and Sport select committee will set out how we believe this should be done, in our forthcoming final report on Disinformation and fake news, which will be published later this month.”

Collins has repeatedly asked Zuckerberg to come and testify in Britain, but thus far he has declined to do so.

Read more:
The most explosive moments from Facebook’s hearing, where furious lawmakers tore into “frat-boy billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg

This isn’t the first time in recent months Zuckerberg has sought to defend his scandal-plagued social network. He published a 1,000-word op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal in January.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.