Facebook is a business. If you really want it to change the way it works, log off

Ben Chu
Facebook's revenues last year were $27.5bn – so safe to say money is not a problem for the social media giant: Getty

It’s often said you should keep an eye on what politicians actually do, rather than fixating on what they say. That wisdom applies just as much to corporations.

Facebook’s community standards policy states it will remove any content that promotes sexual violence or exploitation. But when the BBC flagged various examples of this kind of content to the social media platform, most of the images were left untouched.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has insisted he is alive to widespread concerns about the dissemination of fake news via Facebook and that he takes misinformation seriously. But there has been no substantive action taken to eradicate obvious hoaxes from the platform, despite claims from the founder that progress is being made.

This is not a question of lack of resources. Facebook’s revenues last year were $27.5bn, up from just $3.7bn in 2011. Profits have risen from $1bn to $10bn over that same period. Money is not the problem for Facebook.

What we are dealing with here is a lack of will; or rather a strategic paralysis. Facebook is determined that it will not be bounced into becoming an active curator and editor of the content that appears on the platform; content that is posted and shared by its 1.86 billion active users.

Not only would that entail a considerable expansion of its cost base, but it could fundamentally change the relationship between the platform and the regulatory authorities across the many territories it operates. If Facebook is perceived to be “in charge” of what appears on the platform then it may also be held accountable for that content.

This is an expectation that traditional newspapers and online news organisations like The Independent have long been used to. But while Facebook is happy to collect the billions of dollars a year of advertising revenues that formerly flowed to the traditional news media it does not want the social responsibilities that come with being a media company.

This is not the only example of what we might generously call Zuckerberg’s cognitive dissonance. He talks grandly of his desire to spread “prosperity and freedom” through Facebook’s expansion and “making the world open”. Yet last year he was making overtures to the internet-censoring autocrats of Beijing, meeting with China’s propaganda chief Liu Yunshan. He also posted what looked alarmingly like a propaganda picture of himself jogging in the smog-blanketed Tiananmen Square, promoting some richly deserved online derision in China.

But we should be fair to Zuckerberg. Sensitively curating 1.86 billion users is no trivial task. Facebook has faced complaints in recent years for taking down images of breast-feeding mothers that it mistakenly identified as explicit. Facebook is different from a newspaper in that people feel that what they post is “their” content. There’s a tendency - at times - for people to demand a combination of the wisdom of Solomon and Papal infallibility from the company. We want them to interfere with the content of others, but to leave ours well alone.

And curating the news is an especially hazardous business. Zuckerberg raises valid points about the difficulty of distinguishing hoaxes from satire and the risk of sending people even further into their ideological bunkers through heavy-handed editing.

When it turned out that Facebook’s “trending” newsfeeds were operated by human editors, rather than algorithms, and there were allegations those editors were suppressing the output of right wing news organisations, Facebook caught huge flak from conservatives. More active policing of the network involving human judgements, particularly in the news arena, is inevitably going to generate controversy and criticism.

Yet at the same time we shouldn’t be naïve. There is a tendency in the media to revere Zuckerberg as some sort of technological-seer-cum-freedom-fighter. But his primary goal is to continue building his business in order to justify the enormous valuation put on it by the financial markets since it floated on the stock market in 2012.

Investors have priced Facebook at a domination price – and that means Zuckerberg needs to deliver domination. Hence his desire to get into the vast China market, where Facebook is currently barred. The value of his own stake in the company, worth some $55bn, depends on success. If cleaning up the platform conflicts with its user growth, or allows a competitor to take market share, it’s not difficult to guess which way he will lean.

If we want reform of the pre-eminent online social network of our times we cannot rely on its founder to deliver it; that change will need to be driven by the demands of users, whose eyeballs attract those billions of advertising dollars. If people really want change, logging off may be the only way to achieve it. Actions speak louder than words.

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