Reading the Zuckerberg manifesto

It’s perhaps not surprising that the manifesto published by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday promotes “global community.” The idea that a social media platform like Facebook primarily serves as a community space is consistent with the site’s branding according to techno-utopian versions of a networked society. It also supports the way that Facebook’s primary function as an advertising platform gets papered over by injunctions to share personal information and content for the sake of “community building.”

But what is remarkable about the manifesto is the degree to which a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ethos gets linked to Facebook’s neocolonial strategy. As I have written elsewhere, the social graph subtending Facebook’s networking of individual profiles follows a logic of visuality that renders differently-marked identities legible in order to discipline them within its internal commercial strategy. Of course, that commercial strategy opens up onto broader political modes of control as was made apparent with Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the use of Facebook data by the state surveillance apparatus.

Now, in an even more blatantly divisive political context, Facebook itself is laying claim to the responsibility for state-level governmentality in the US and beyond. The problems cited in the manifesto, “terrorism, natural disasters, disease, refugee crises, and climate change” are said to require “coordinated responses from a worldwide vantage point. No nation can solve them alone.” Facebook’s CSR strategy now involves positioning itself as an actor with a “worldwide vantage point,” conflating its US-based, culturally imperialistic perspective (“Sitting here in California”) with a global “us.”

The manifesto uses “us,” “we,” and “our” repeatedly to construct a sense that there is a global community, implicitly, that of Facebook users. Admissions of polarization among these users are downplayed through appeals to diversity, such as in the assertion that “Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has.” The problem is not social media, Zuckerberg continues, but sensationalism. And Facebook will combat media sensationalism by continuing to develop its Artificial Intelligence capacities to filter out sensationalistic or inaccurate reporting. AI will also be used to identify “terrorist” content, bolster political engagement and accountability, and enforce cultural norms. In short, the site’s commitment to building a “supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged, and inclusive” global community through what it identifies as “very meaningful” Facebook groups consistently leads back into a defense of AI.

In this context, AI is positioned as the panacea to a host of what the manifesto identifies as pressing global problems – “ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics” – through global solutions – “spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science.” Lest anyone criticize this technologically deterministic framework, Zuckerberg asserts that such criticisms are merely another example of polarization, where “discussion around AI has been oversimplified to existential fear-mongering.” What this dismissal of critiques does is to further a neocolonial project of domination over a global population through automated social sorting that claims to be somehow removed from the politics of human decision-making.

But Facebook’s content flagging system has “made mistakes,” as the manifesto puts it, in removing certain “newsworthy” (read: activist) images and videos. “These mistakes are almost never because we hold ideological positions at odds with the community, but instead are operational scaling issues,” Zuckerberg claims, further distancing the AI from human intervention. So if the filtering system employed by Facebook can make mistakes in gatekeeping the public discourse, then why is the answer only to “evolve towards a system of personal control over our experience”? I would answer that, while this solution would seem to amplify the issues with polarization, it keeps the faith in AI intact and thus maintains the site’s deterministic conceit.

Ultimately, the manifesto’s rhetorical moves – articulating a vague global “us,” mentioning community over a hundred times, even quoting President Lincoln – contribute to a somewhat obvious CSR positioning. The site is massive and as a result does have a responsibility for managing publics. But its consistent disavowal of the narrow-sighted neocolonial and deterministic paradigm that guides its CSR are troubling. As Zuckerberg states, “I want to emphasize that the vast majority of conversations on Facebook are social, not ideological,” directly contravening a fact that underlies any understanding of the global dilemmas articulated in the manifesto: the fact that the social is inherently ideological.

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