Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wields a kind of power that we’re only just beginning to understand, writes the University of Auckland’s Luke Goode

Students often tell me that, in the world of social media, Facebook is “yesterday’s news” — an ageing platform inhabited by an ageing demographic. But the numbers don’t lie: at roughly 2 billion regular users and growing, Facebook looks set to remain the uncontested behemoth of social media for the foreseeable future. And, of course, the young people who are disengaging from Facebook can typically be found on other Facebook properties like Instagram and WhatsApp.

In its short history, the company has in fact acquired over 50 tech properties, most of which simply get shut down. Its market dominance has been secured not solely through the immense popularity of the Facebook platform but also through ruthless business practices.

From a corporate perspective, the tech giant is in rude health. But Facebook has been in the news in recent months for different reasons, having become embroiled in major political and ethical controversies around fake news, its (alleged) role in the outcome of last November’s US political earthquake, and (following a Guardian investigation) the arcane procedures by which it moderates and censors content.

Facebook’s critics also continue to raise questions about other murky aspects of this immensely powerful business, including: the harvesting, use and on-sale of user data (does Facebook know more about us now than we know ourselves?); the commercially secret algorithm that influences who and what we see in our newsfeeds; tax avoidance; anti-competitive practices in the advertising market (and knock-on consequences for media industries); and the leverage Facebook seeks through its political donations and lobbying power. 

Do the ethical and political controversies surrounding Facebook keep CEO Mark Zuckerberg awake at night? Isn’t he just a ruthless businessman motivated by the bottom line?

In public, at least, Zuckerberg has indulged in some soul-searching of late. We’ve heard more about his ambitious philanthropic projects. He also recently penned a sprawling 6000-word manifesto committing Facebook to building a “global community”, mitigating the toxic effects of polarised “echo chambers” and hate speech, and promoting high quality content over sensational or fake news.

Zuckerberg also used a recent Harvard commencement address to outline his agenda for “compassionate globalism”. Most recently, Facebook changed its mission statement which now promises to “bring the world closer together”.

And in order to try to understand that “world” more deeply, Zuckerberg is travelling around every US state during 2017 to meet some of the people who make up this imagined “global community”, prompting some to speculate that he may be preparing for a presidential run in 2020.

Zuckerberg’s growing power reflects a hollowing out rather than an enrichment of democracy.

It’s easy to be cynical and view this apparent soul-searching as little more than slick PR and an attempt to keep the would-be regulators (for example in Europe) from the door.

But Zuckerberg is not just a merciless businessman. He’s also an idealist. In fact, he reflects a Silicon Valley ethos that sees these two things as entirely compatible. Of course, he has to be mindful of the bottom line and keep the shareholders happy but when you enjoy the immense power of Facebook and the immense wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, you can afford to dream big.

The Silicon Valley ethos (or the Californian ideology, as some commentators call it) harbours a utopian faith in technology as the route to a better world.

The early internet pioneers were often hippies as well as geeks. This fusion of tech and counterculture still echoes today at events such as the annual Burning Man festival. Today’s tech prophets see the merger of market forces and technological ‘solutionism’ (to use commentator Evgeny Morozov’s term) as the natural pathway towards curing the world’s ills. 

The Silicon Valley ethos has always viewed traditional politics and government as part of the problem, rather than the solution. The most explicit manifesto for this cyber-libertarian ideology came in Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in which he famously told governments: “Leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

When Zuckerberg refers repeatedly to “social infrastructure” in his recent manifesto, he means something that can be built by his company. All that’s required is good code. As he travels the US on his quest to meet real people, he is no doubt noting down all the variables that have to be programmed into his planned global community upgrade.

Zuckerberg is perhaps not quite the wide-eyed daydreamer that multi-billionaire Tesla and SpaceX leader Elon Musk is. But he is still one of Silicon Valley’s idealists.

At least you know where you stand with naked capitalists. Billionaires with ideals, dreams and a heart, however, present a more complex force to be reckoned with.   

Would Zuckerberg be interested in becoming president? It’s possible he might be seduced by the aura of office (if there’s anything left of it in four years’ time) but, more likely, he thinks power lies elsewhere.

And that power he seeks is opaque in two senses.

Firstly, the rise of the tech baron is a relatively recent historical phenomenon and we’re still trying to figure out the kind of power he or she can exercise. It’s true that, unlike the press barons of old, Zuckerberg is not some ideological fat controller, directly shaping content to fit a personal agenda. At the same time, Facebook enjoys a market dominance and global reach that the likes of Rupert Murdoch could only dream of. This is a new, pervasive and slippery form of power that perhaps we will only properly understand with historical hindsight.

But Zuckerberg’s power is opaque also in the sense that it is profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. Facebook purports to democratise communication. But from proprietary algorithms to philanthropic whims, Zuckerberg’s growing power reflects a hollowing out rather than an enrichment of democracy.

Neither Facebook nor Zuckerberg are inherently malevolent. Both can be forces for good and bad alike. And both will likely continue to shape the world in years to come. But as things stand, it’s unlikely you or I will get much say in how that happens.

Leave a comment