Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Democracy is not a Facebook focus group.
With his 5,800-word manifesto on “Building Global Community,” Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg seems to be easing ever more into his role as benevolent dictator of the media universe. As recently as just after the U.S. elections in November, he attempted to dodge responsibility for Facebook’s role in shaping the outcome. Now, three months later, he is ready to take charge of the security, accuracy and diversity of how the world shares information. And he wants our help.
The latter third of the essay centers around a call for Facebook to “explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.” This comes in the context of the declining fortunes of democracy in governments the world over; we may be losing our countries to authoritarians, but at least we will have our Facebook. The proposal seems to amount to a cascading series of online focus groups—of which we may or may not know we are a part—managed by artificial intelligence in order to develop fine-tuned acceptability standards for content across various world cultures. But democracy is not a focus group.
Democracy is not a focus group.
Democracy means ownership and accountability, along with shared governance. That is how you make sure the governance is real, that it matters and that participants will take it seriously. In a country with functioning democracy, citizens vote responsibly because they know they will own the consequences if they don’t. They will be footing the bill. Same with the investors in a corporation or the members of a cooperative business, whether it is a neighborhood food co-op or a national credit union.
Offering free input to an unaccountable oligarchy is very different. It is more like feudalism. King Louis XVI offered his subjects focus groups when he initiated the Cahiers de Doléances in early 1789; it was only with the start of the revolution later that year that the process of securing some real democracy began. If Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision for government is anything like Facebook’spast experiments with referenda on its terms of service, users should demand better before the sham-democracy starts.
Ownership is also about economics. It is about who benefits. Right now, Facebook is in the process of absorbing huge swaths of the global advertising market, lots of our life-giving communities and now much of politics and media—funnelling the profits mainly to the founders, early investors and other large shareholders. Mr. Zuckerberg has tried to dismiss this concern. “One thing I have been wondering recently is if people misdiagnosed it that the hope for the future is all economic,” hetold Kara Swisher in an interview about the manifesto. “But the things that are happening in our world now are all about the social world not being what people need.”
This billionaire’s refusal to recognize the rise of authoritarianism as a symptom of economic inequality and insecurity is startling. He views unrest—as authoritarians tend to—as a problem of faulty management, not of unjust accumulations of power.
Mr. Zuckerberg is at least right about one thing: Online platforms like his may be the best hope for democracy in a time of reactionary politics.
Mr. Zuckerberg is at least right about one thing: Online platforms like his may be the best hope for democracy in a time of reactionary politics. But not in the fashion he suggests. The growing movement for “platform cooperativism” envisions online platforms truly owned and governed by those who depend on them;experiments around the world are beginning to demonstrate that this kind of democratic internet is possible and competitive. Already Twitter isfacing pressure from shareholders to consider this option for the company’s future.
Nobody is better-positioned to jumpstart such democracy than Mark Zuckerberg. Late in 2015, he and his wife announced plans to donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock to their own LLC for charitable purposes—for instance,curing every disease. This is a noble ambition, but perhaps more noble, and certainly more democratic, would be to distribute that stock among the people who made it valuable in the first place: Facebook’s users. Like the British retailer John Lewis Partnership did for its employees, the stock could be held in a trust that users directly control and have the opportunity to benefit from.
On the one hand, Mr. Zuckerberg would be demonstrating that he takes democracy seriously—that he really believes in collective wisdom, rightly organized and incentivized, as wiser than any one mind. On the other hand, users might then have at least a seat in the boardroom when decisions are being made about what to do with their valuable, personal data now locked up in the platform.
This is not only just; it is sensible. Co-ownership means real accountability. It would prevent fiascos of governance without ownership, like when Reddit users revolted and shut down large swaths of the platform. It would also foster a kind of self-regulation, which might forestall governments from further erecting an onerous patchwork of their own constraints. In the United States, for instance, cooperative electric utilities face far less state regulation than their investor-owned counterparts.
Most of all, sharing ownership would be just. If Mr. Zuckerberg is up to the task of forming the new world media order and doing it democratically, let’s at least make that democracy honest.