Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Democracy is not a Facebook focus group.

Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, waves at the CEO summit during the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Lima, Peru. Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, waves at the CEO summit during the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

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.

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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.

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James O'Reilly
9 months ago

Massively successful, massively wealthy, AND massive ego.
Believes that at a young age with limited life experience beyond the super rich 1% he is in a position to preach to the rest of mankind.
Grow up, experience heartache and defeat, succor the hurt and needy personally, find people to relate to outside of your bubble, live a few more years (maybe have a teenage child tell you that you are totally out of touch), then MAYBE you are in a position to deliver a Manifesto about how the rest of us should behave.
Get over yourself, Mark, seek humility, seek some mentors with life lessons to share, and pipe down. The rest of us are trying to figure it out without an entitled young billionaire telling us how to live!

Stuart Meisenzahl
9 months ago

The only thing more insufferable than MZ's ridiculous posing as a philosopher/politician is Mr Schneider posing as an economic social justice expert. Telling Mr Z how to manage his wealth and what the proper causes are that he should use his wealth to support(elimination of income inequality) isn't just utopian nonsense, it is presumptuous and reeks of a moral certainty supported only by Mr Schneider's own choices. Giving a nickel to 20 million people won't ever accomplish what a million dollars applied to single cause can accomplish. Spreading his shares in similar fashion is just as unproductive and unfocused and certainly won't even put a nick in income inequality as a social issue.

Nathan Schneider
9 months ago

I'm sorry you find the proposal insufferable, but I'm afraid it's hardly utopian. What I propose is better suited to Mr. Zuckerberg's own stated ambitions than what he plans to do—the ambitions of fostering genuine democracy at a time when such democracy is on the decline in other quarters. Further, cooperative business models have been shown to work well fpr global media utilities. For instance, Associated Press (a cooperative founded in 1846) achieves several of the goals Mr. Zuckerberg aspires to in his document, such as resisting excess polarization and enthusiasm, in large part because of its cooperative structure. And while I agree that aggregated funds can be powerful agents for change, I think it's highly undemocratic that such vast resources should be under the control of one family. If Mr. Zuckerberg's record so far in philanthropy around education is any indication, his qualifications for spending money on things other than running Facebook leave something to be desired. How else might he apply democratic principles in the distribution of his excess wealth?

Stuart Meisenzahl
9 months ago

Mr Schneider
I must admit I am flummoxed by your statement ."....it's highly undemocratic that such vast resources should be under the control of one family."
Exactly what is "undemocratic"about this situation.....it seems it might appear undesirable , or perhaps it might even be perceived as unfair.
What is the numerical dividing line that makes one accumulation of control democratic and another accumulation of control undemocratic? Is it a dollar number? A perception that changes with the consensus of viewers? If such control is concluded to be "undemocratic" ,does that require action to restore a state of democracy?
I am also troubled by your apparent conclusion that if Mr Zuckerberg wants to foster "genuine democracy" that he should (must?) rid himself of his shares to achieve income equality. Such Social Justice goals may be moral informants that should be considered by the members of a democracy but they not a precondition of the existence of democracy. Your argument to the contrary is just another version of the position that the practice and existence of free enterprise...capitalism is antithetical to democracy.
Even if I were to grant you the argument that vast accumulations of wealth for solely personal purposes is immoral that does not make it per se "undemocratic".

Jeremiah Myer
9 months ago

Nor is democracy a reality show like we have now in Washington.

jerry lawler
9 months ago

With the explosion of the internet, progressive people fall into the trap of assuming that technology will solve all of mankind's ills and Mr. Z is one of them. While the internet undoubtedly brings us benefits it also magnifies our fallen side. Witness the group think, bullying, fake news, fake reviews and just plain nastiness in chat rooms about politics and social issues. Yes, young technocrats like Mr. Z who are not God-centered will always concoct elaborate Utopian schemes to make the world better and they will always fail. Can we extract from the new technology what really helps humanity and discard the rest?

Derrick Weiller
9 months ago

jerry lawler Please provide empirical data drawn from refereed scientific journals which contrasts the success rates for "God-centered technocrats" with success rates for "not God-centered" technocrats. Thank you.

John Walton
9 months ago

Mark Zuckerberg and Nate Schneider are sui generis.

Joseph J Dunn
9 months ago

Mr. Schneider wrote in December, 2015 that Mark Zuckerberger and his wife should be giving back their Facebook shares (then worth $45 billion) to Facebook users, rather than disposing of it themselves for charitable purposes. Each Facebook user (there are almost 2 billion of them in the world, in an average month) would have received, under Schneider's proposal, about $23 worth of stock.
Today Mr. Schneider proposes that the Zuckerbergers deliver their Facebook shares to Facebook users, so that they might exercise control over this new Facebook, which Schneider summarizes as:
"... 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."
Well, if you use Facebook, you are now on notice, if you were not already. If Facebook's direction is an unacceptable "Term of Use" for you, log off. Your thoughts remain your own, and the Facebook algorithmic opinion poll is the poorer, and less reliable, because you are missing. Problem solved, democratically.
But getting back to the Zuckerberger plan to use their wealth for charity, I think that's grand. Good news: Today Forbes tallies the Zuckerberger wealth at $57 billion--more money for the cause. No government (democracy or otherwise) has found a way to erase the "economic inequality and insecurity" that he, and many others, find disconcerting. More attention to poverty, disease, etc., by people who think and build on a grand scale, adds to the variety of thought. Carnegie's libraries brought books to millions (and still do). Rockefeller's wealth brought us the University of Chicago, Rockefeller Institute/University and its long line of medical discoveries, and a host of other benefits we now take for granted. If the Zuckerbergers will try to add to those triumphs, so be it.
As Mr. Schneider observes, "Ownership...is about who benefits."

Chuck Kotlarz
8 months 4 weeks ago

Mr. Dunn, as Mr. Schneider observes, "Ownership...is about who benefits."

Who owns and who benefits from 10,000 Washington DC corporate lobbyists? Could benefits come at the expense of voters?

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