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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the extraordinary step of speaking to the press on Thursday in a sign that the narrative around the company—that it can’t adequately protect the personal information of the many millions of people who use its signature social network—is spinning out of control.
Zuckerberg made largely anodyne statements in his prepared remarks—“We’re an idealistic and optimistic company,” he told a pack of professional skeptics, “but it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough”—but the question-and-answer portion of the call was where he began to reveal his perspective. “I clearly made a mistake by just dismissing fake news as ‘crazy,’ ” he replied to one question. “Our view of our relationship with people is that our job is to give them tools, and that it was largely people’s responsibility how they chose to use them,” he said to another. And to a cutting query asking if the board had discussed whether he should relinquish his role as chairman, Zuckerberg paused several painful beats before offering: “Not that I’m aware of.”
Facebook’s CEO uttered the word “responsibility” 17 times during the 50-minute press session. (He’ll likely say it many times more when he faces U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.) Yet Zuckerberg’s remarks were neither meant to soothe the media (who continue to nurse their own damaged relationships with the platform) nor the 2.2 billion people who actively use Facebook. They were to calm jittery shareholders who have penalized the company’s stock price almost 20% since Facebook released its most recent quarterly earnings and promised to make changes to its News Feed to emphasize more “meaningful” content (read: less shamelessly viral, ergo less engaging) in the wake of Russian election interference. What has followed: Alarming Cambridge Analytica revelations, full-throated calls for accountability, and a pesky #DeleteFacebook movement.
In yesterday’s press call, Zuckerberg referred to Facebook’s (FB) eponymous social network as “complicated” and “complex.” I have little doubt that those statements are true. But Zuckerberg’s real task at hand isn’t taking a conciliatory stance, good as it may feel to the rest of us. It’s showing that the world’s largest social network can be harnessed—that his creation can be controlled. “I started this place. I run it,” Zuckerberg said at one point during the call. “And I am responsible for what happens here.”