Your former high school classmate has pictures of a new baby, your aunt has video of her great vacation in Majorca, and your presidential candidate has several articles accusing her of killing an FBI agent for leaking emails.
One of these things is not like the others (hint: it’s the last one), but Facebook will share them all if it thinks they’ll please you. It will even promote them further if it thinks that other users will find them interesting as well. To the algorithms that control the site, what matters is the “connection” you make with others via these snippets of information. Whether that connection is based on something true is an entirely different question.
In the current kerfuffle over whether the fake news and misinformation that proliferated on the site might have influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, Facebook’s difficulty in acknowledging whether it’s simply a provider of pleasant connections or a public utility with real obligations has come to the fore. The criticisms have illuminated Facebook’s crisis of mission: profitable lifestyle platform or force for common good? More than a decade after its launch, its creator is still trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be — but it’s frankly irresponsible to remain undecided for much longer.
As originally conceived, Facebook’s value was limited. In its 2006 mission statement, the company claimed that its purpose was simply to “connect people through social networks,” providing an engaging, friendship-enhancing experience. It was a lifestyle site — its limitations on what could be shared revolved mainly around whether content made the site a welcoming space for users.
As the site has grown in size, however, its aspirations have changed. Yes, you can still see pictures of your former classmate’s baby (or not, if you don’t think she’s that cute), but you are also encouraged to share experiences and connect in a way that “makes the world more open” and changes society. Today, Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected and to allow people “to discover what’s going on in the world.”
Facebook now bills itself as a force for good, and its influence and reach are defining aspects of its value proposition: Sparking a revolution in Egypt. Publicizing police brutality. Registering millions of users to vote. Connecting billions of Indians to the Internet (okay, that one didn’t work out, but the point is that it tried). When we think about how the company functions today and what it signals as its future aspirations, it’s clear that the social network is no longer just in the business of lifestyle-focused, surface-skimming connection.
After all, Facebook is not Instagram, where the focus is on aesthetically pleasing images rather than activism. It’s not Snapchat, where impermanence and limited impact are core values. Nor is it Pinterest, a content-agnostic recipe clearinghouse. Today, 44 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook, a fact of which the company is well aware.
Unfortunately, taking responsibility for that fact is an unappealing prospect, and understandably so. As Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on his own Facebook page, “identifying ‘the truth’ is complicated.” Acting as an arbiter of fact — an important role to play, but one nearly impossible to fulfill successfully — opens you up to criticism and anger, something Facebook experienced this year in its tiff with conservative groups over possible bias in its “trending topics.”
Advertisers may not like it when the company takes a seemingly partisan stand. Countries with restrictive regimes probably won’t either. Hiring editors and losing the ability to blame “algorithms” for mistakes would be unwieldy next steps for a company that would rather focus on growth, regardless of what that growth might bring. Drawing difficult lines may shape what Facebook can do in the future and potentially limit its reach.
But at this point, Facebook knows that it’s more than a platform for pleasantries or consequence-free connections. If it aims to be something larger — and clearly it does — it needs to consider the responsibilities of its new role and to put new values into action.