The inherent paradox in social media platforms such as Facebook is that they open up instantaneous communication on a global scale whilst insulating users ever more prohibitively within a social echochamber. Revolutions have been livestreamed across the world, transcending borders with a click, and yet during the last US election cycle fake news from hoax sites and hyperpartisan sources were shared more on Facebook than stories from mainstream outlets.
You might think Facebook is just a tool but with more than 1.8 billion users and a market value worth more than the entire GDP of Hong Kong, it has real power to shape and influence events of global political importance. Few, it seems, are more aware of this fact than Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg who recently has written a manifesto explaining how the social media platform will build a ‘civically-engaged community’ across the internet which is not only safe, supportive and inclusive but also informed.
It’s an ambitious project. As Zuckerberg explains, ‘For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families’, but now his team will commit all its ‘energy to building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together’. How will Facebook do this? Well, it already is. When a woman named Christina was diagnosed with a rare form of disorder, Epidermolysis Bullosa, she was able to join an online group of more than 2,400 people who could share their experiences and provide mutual support. Meanwhile, over 4,000 military families in San Diego have joined a group through which they can make friends, organise meet-ups and generally be there for one another.
Part of this community-building project will involve strengthening the tools which people around the world are already using. This can be done by expanding groups to include sub-communities, mimicking real world relationships which are defined by communities within larger communities.
Facebook has a lot of work to do to demonstrate that it can facilitate meaningful political engagement
In a world in which suggestible teenagers can be radicalised from their bedroom through internet propaganda, safety is a key priority in Zuckerberg’s mission. Facebook’s Safety Check feature allows users to let friends and family know they are safe after a natural disaster or an attack. Facebook groups were also used to raise $15 million in aid to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015. In regards to the more amorphous threat of terrorism, Facebook are investing in artificial intelligence which can identify and remove radicalising.
Facebook also has a lot of work to do to demonstrate that it can facilitate meaningful political engagement. So far it has precisely the opposite reputation, spawning a whole new vocabulary of ‘clickbait’ and ‘clicktivism’ to describe the superficiality of online discourse. Facebook has recently sought to combat the pandemic of ‘fake news’ by taking into account whether or not an article has actually been read before being shared. Strategies such as this ought to minimise the simplistic sensationalism which saturates our News Feed, Zuckerberg argues.
In the midst of a so-called ‘crisis of apathy’, Facebook also has an important role to play in encouraging participation in the electoral process. In the US alone in 2016, Facebook helped more than 2 million people register to vote. But local civic engagement is important too. Facebook can be used to promote local news but the potential goes far beyond the News Feed. Many Kenyan villages are using WhatsApp groups to connect the whole community, including the local political representative.
Tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are often ridiculed for their messianic optimism but nobody can deny the real influence which technology, especially Facebook, has on our lives. I currently have a Facebook tab open as I am writing this and I would bet that you have checked Facebook or some other social media platform at least once in the last half hour. Print media is dying and for the majority of millennials, far more news reaches us through Facebook than through the newspapers.
It is just as well that Mark Zuckerberg is thinking of these social and political issues as with great power comes the ability to corrupt as well as progress. Zuckerberg finishes his letter by stating: ‘I hope we have the focus to take the long view and build the new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come’. So do I, Mark, so do I.