Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
With his decision to emphasize encrypted messaging, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has effectively accepted that the fight to police the platform against bad actors and other excesses can't be won.
Why it matters: The future of global messaging is now much different — not the remarkable, if profoundly flawed, public square of more than 2 billion members that Facebook has become, but a fractured one, with the world chatting and spending money on smaller platforms and in countless separate channels.
Zuckerberg might not have made such a climactic decision unless pushed commercially. Some 15 million Americans stopped using Facebook last year, according to a new study, and Wired's Molly Wood calls Zuckerberg's move an effort to get in front of a coming "collapse" of his core business.
But the shift also coincides with intense global public and political pressure over unabated abuse of the platform to spread hate, divide societies, traffic in humans, and commit murder, all of which proved exceedingly difficult to stop.
What's happening: Zuckerberg announced the move last week in a long statement, setting Facebook on a course of building out a private, encrypted dimension of the platform that will ultimately eclipse the current public square.
- Experts surveyed by Axios are skeptical: Some said encryption and private channels will not rid Facebook of abuse, which they said may now be even harder to police. Others — after years of Facebook's slow, grudging admission of the truth going on behinds its walls — simply were not prepared to take Zuckerberg at his word (see below for more).
- Neither Zuckerberg nor anyone else at Facebook has publicly thrown in the towel. ("Z would NEVER acknowledge that it is too hard for him to do anything!" said Brian Balogh, a history professor at the University of Virginia.)
- Yet, even if he did not say so explicitly, there was no getting around the main takeaway: His tacit admission that the current state of affairs at Facebook, with all of its calamitous social and political effects, is not repairable.
"Facebook was originally not designed as a public medium, so I think a return to its original friends-and-family focus makes sense for them to better match their users’ expectations," Deb Roy, a professor at MIT and former chief media scientist at Twitter, tells Axios.
- "Human roles that typically not only police bad behavior but more generally moderate and facilitate behavior were never part of Facebook’s system design," Roy said.
- "Now with billions of users, it may indeed be impossible to retrofit such roles in an effective way."
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said:
"That’s a fundamental misreading of the announcement. First, as we’ve repeatedly made clear, we have built new products, hired tens of thousands of new people to keep our platform safe, and are a different company than we were in 2016. Second, as Mark pointed out, this announcement will take a real amount of time to implement and public sharing on social networks will always be important.”
The big picture: In a previous post, we asked experts to imagine a world without Facebook. None could — all found the platform too useful to too many people, and admonished any government that would try to take it down.
Just half a year later, it's hard to find any clear Facebook defenders — and that's the case with Zuckerberg's attempt at reform as well. Here are a couple of questions I heard while canvassing experts:
Can Zuckerberg be believed at all?
- Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, has his doubts. "It’s hard to see how they end [the current Facebook business] model without ending their business success along with it," he said.
- Tiffany Li, head of the Initiative on Intermediaries and Information at Yale Law School, agrees: "What’s really important is seeing if Facebook makes any actual changes to make their products and services safer. We’ve seen them apologize for privacy violations before, and we’ve heard them promise to do better many times before — without much to show for it."
But, if he can be believed, will the situation only become worse?
- "From my perspective, this move to consolidated privacy is going to make it more difficult to assess the ways in which Facebook is manipulated. ... Media manipulators will adapt to this tactic and it will be harder to assess or take down content that is considered private," said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard's Kennedy School.
- "If Facebook is encrypted, Zuckerberg and his employees won't know what is in the messages and won't be responsible for downgrading or deleting racist, threatening, anti-scientific, and politically manipulative content from domestic and foreign actors. Facebook is off the hook," said Andrew Feenberg, a philosophy professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
The bottom line: Fifteen years after launching Facebook in his dorm room, Zuckerberg is again reinventing his creation. But Tim Derdenger, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, says the network effects of huge numbers of customers can work in exponential reverse as people leave you. In other words, Zuckerberg has no time to waste. "They need to move fast."