Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is no longer content with upgrading the software that drives his massive social network. Now he’s interested in upgrading the 2 billion human beings who use it.
Is it just me, or is your skin crawling? One of the world’s richest men — who’s supposedly thinking of running for president — wants to get even further inside our heads than he already is. Even if you think Facebook’s motives are honorable, Zuckerberg’s announcement represents an explicit, disturbing shift in the mission of perhaps the world’s most powerful business.
The primary news source for millions worldwide, Facebook also knows almost everything worth knowing about its users. Not even the old Soviet KGB had so much information. And like the Soviet government, Facebook is accountable only to itself.
This was worrisome enough when Facebook promised to inform or entertain us. But now it’s committed to “improving” us, on Zuckerberg’s own terms rather than our own.
“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness.”
A huge amount of what we see in our newsfeeds is what Facebook calls, “public content.” These are news articles, for instance, or video clips from TV networks and advertisers. Now, Facebook believes a heavy diet of this is not making its users happier.
So instead we’ll get more of the doings of our friends and families — kind of like what many of us signed up for in the first place. You’ll still get news and entertainment items, but mainly those viewed and “liked” by people you’re connected with on Facebook. Random stories from The New York Times or The Boston Globe will be harder to come by; so will “fake news” items planted by provocateurs.
Limiting public content could well cost Facebook millions of dollars in advertising revenue; Zuckerberg even predicts many of us might even log on less frequently; indeed, Wall Street wasn’t thrilled — the stock dropped 4.5 percent Friday. But this isn’t just about money.
“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health.”
The change of heart is partly due to the 2016 election fiasco, in which Russian operatives secretly used Facebook posts to manipulate American voters. Zuckerberg realizes his beloved creation enables psychological manipulation on a massive scale.
Facebook is working to block the kind of manipulative trash served up by the Russians, but it’s nearly impossible to get it all. Limiting public content will ensure that what does get through won’t reach as large an audience.
But I think Zuckerberg is also dismayed by the anger and bitterness of our public discourse, especially on Facebook. If we spend more time chatting with friends, the thinking goes, and less being enraged by the latest from Fox News, we’ll be better for it.
Facebook tried something similar in 2012, when it subtly altered the information it displayed to about 700,000 users, to see if certain kinds of stories affect their moods. When the results were published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, the global outcry led Facebook to issue a public apology for secretly playing mind games with its users.
Well, this time it’s no secret. Facebook is telling us, loud and proud, that it’s going to give you what it thinks is good for you.
Maybe so. And yet, as we troll through our newsfeeds, we’ll now know Facebook isn’t trying to serve a balanced diet of news and information. It’s trying to reshape our lives. It’s as if Zuckerberg is handing over Facebook to that other potential presidential candidate, Oprah Winfrey.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.