Facebook has a world of problems. Beyond charges of Russian manipulation and promoting fake news, the company’s signature social media platform is under fire for being addictive, causing anxiety and depression, and even instigating human rights abuses.
Company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to win back users’ trust. But his company’s efforts so far have ignored the root causes of the problems they intend to fix, and even risk making matters worse. Specifically, they ignore the fact that personal interaction isn’t always meaningful or benign, leave out the needs of users in the developing world, and seem to compete with the company’s own business model.
Based on The Digital Planet, a multi-year global study of how digital technologies spread and how much people trust them, which I lead at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, I have some ideas about how to fix Facebook’s efforts to fix itself.
Like many technology companies, Facebook must balance the convergence of digital dependence, digital dominance and digital distrust. Over 2 billion people worldwide check Facebook each month; 45 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook. Together with Google, it captures half of all digital advertising revenues worldwide. Yet more people say they greatly distrust Facebook than any other member of the big five – Amazon, Apple, Google or Microsoft.
In March 2017 Facebook started taking responsibility for quality control as a way to restore users’ trust. The company hired fact-checkers to verify information in posts. Two months later the company changed its algorithms to help users find diverse viewpoints on current issues and events. And in October 2017, it imposed new transparency requirements to force advertisers to identify themselves clearly.
But Zuckerberg led off 2018 in a different direction, committing to “working to fix our issues together.” That last word, “together,” suggests an inclusive approach, but in my view, it really says the company is shifting the burden back onto its users.
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