You have got to give Mark Zuckerberg credit for maintaining his boyish faith in the benevolent influence of technology, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.
Since founding Facebook as a callow student at Harvard, Zuckerberg has insisted that walls of privacy and gatekeepers of information are impediments that should give way to instant and limitless sharing of ideas and information with all who will listen. As expressed in the company’s mission statement, Facebook’s goal is “bringing the world closer together.”
Sometimes, however, proximity is not so pleasant. With a nudge from congressional investigators and the special prosecutor looking into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Zuckerberg has been forced to face the truth that Facebook has been weaponized by alien operatives intent on sowing chaos and division with the aim of undermining democracy. Humming along with minimal human oversight, Facebook’s vast system of algorithms allowed Russian operatives to set up fake accounts, buy ads and spread a sophisticated array of lies and bogus news stories targeted at particular groups of Facebook users who would be susceptible to their influence.
When this issue first came up, Zuckerberg said the contention that Facebook had been used by the Russians to mislead voters and influence the election was a “pretty crazy idea.” Now, however, he has announced that his company will be turning over to Congress an initial 3,000 ads placed on Facebook by agents and affiliates of the Kremlin.
"I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," Zuckerberg said in a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy.… We are in a new world. It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”
However reluctantly, Zuckerberg is recognizing the not-so-nice aspects of our ever-more-interconnected world. His counterparts at Twitter are having to do the same now that it is apparent their platform was utilized for Russian mischief to an even greater extent than Facebook.
It is probably too much to hope that the president of the United States will be similarly willing to accept the facts. Even with hard evidence that the Russians exploited American social media for nefarious purposes, Donald Trump clings to the delusion that this Russia scenario is nothing but a plot concocted by his enemies to delegitimize his election victory. In response to the Facebook and Twitter revelations, Trump sent out a tweet that was as defensive as it was nonsensical:
“Facebook was always anti-Trump.The Networks were always anti-Trump hence, Fake News, @nytimes(apologized) & @WaPo were anti-Trump. Collusion?”
This latest example of Trump’s thin-skinned paranoia said nothing about the accumulating proof of Russian dirty tricks. A president with a normal grasp of reality would be expressing grave concern and would be doing everything he could to protect our electoral system. Trump, though, is not normal. He has a narcissist’s response to everything. It is all about him, not the country.
There is talk that Zuckerberg may one day run for president. He might or might not make a good commander in chief, but we could do worse. In fact, we already have.
Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter
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