Facebook’s Biggest Problem? A Crisis of Words

July 27, 2018, 1:54 AM UTC

“The [executive] either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

The quote is from Politics and the English Language and while George Orwell never made Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg his object of scorn—the original reads “writer” in place of “executive”—he would have been right to do so. More than any other company today, Facebook has a freakish inability to use words.

Facebook’s penchant for verbal nonsense is neither new nor particularly unique in a corporate world that loves self-interested spin. But today, that habit is driving a crisis of trust engulfing the Silicon Valley company. The failure of its executives, particularly co-founder Zuckerberg, to speak in plain, candid language during earnings calls and other appearances is a big reason that Facebook can’t escape the moral quagmire that led to an overnight plunge in its lofty stock price.

Want an example of Facebook’s failure with words? Begin with Zuckerberg’s bizarre insistence that he doesn’t run a media company. Facebook has long operated a global broadcast channel with more viewers than any television station on the planet, and has gobbled much of the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media outlets. Yet in testifying before Congress in April, Zuckerberg again would not concede the obvious proposition that Facebook is a media company.

“I consider us to be a technology company,” he told lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Many observers interpreted the response as an attempt to shirk responsibility for Facebook’s role as a purveyor of news, video, and other media in the wake of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Such prevarications are akin to the CEO of a large energy company declaring, when confronted with a massive spill: “We’re not an oil company.” In Facebook’s case, the company pumps its own pollution in the form of fake news, troll armies, and conspiracy theories. At Facebook’s scale, it amounts to a massive sludge of toxic media. If Zuckerberg truly hopes to clean it up, he can start by admitting he’s in the media business.

Another example of what Orwell called “debased language” is Facebook’s invocation of “the community” to justify behavior that is abhorrent and wrong. Most recently, executives muttered about “community standards” in a limp defense of why Facebook allows Holocaust deniers or the noxious conspiracy site InfoWars to flourish on its platform.

Zuckerberg himself has invoked “the community” over and over to explain Facebook’s foot-dragging. But as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out, Zuckerberg has failed to explain how the 2 billion people who use Facebook can possibly be defined as a community.

I called Facebook to learn more about what “community” means to the company, to little avail. A spokesperson said Facebook develops guidelines “with the community in mind” and on the basis of “safety, equity, and voice.” I asked the spokesperson to explain how a billion people can be “a community” and she simply referred me back to the guidelines.

The exchange underscored why New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo has concluded that Facebook’s stated policies make no sense. “All of this fails a basic test: It’s not even coherent. It is a hodgepodge of declarations and exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions,” Manjoo wrote while describing Zuckerberg’s verbal contortions about Holocaust deniers using the service.

The incoherence is frustrating but, worse, it’s disempowering. When Zuckerberg defends Facebook’s latest outrage in the name of the community, it puts all of us in that community—you and me and the trolls and the hate-mongers and yes, the Holocaust deniers. No decent person wants to be part of such a community. Most see a community as a group of people who share similar values and with whom they choose to identify. To Zuckerberg, the word apparently means something else.

“Platforms like Facebook, which exist for the express purpose of ‘creating community,’ turn out to be in the business of exploiting the communities they’ve created for the benefit of those outside (the business community, the strategic communications community, the Moldovan hacker community),” explains writer Carina Chocanoa. “They invite members to ‘participate,’ but not, in the end, to make decisions together; the largest rewards, and the greatest powers, stay private.”

If Zuckerberg wants to cling to the word “community,” he will have to make some hard decisions about who is part of that community and who is not. Such a decision should be informed by law and ethics and philosophy—not a slapdash jumble of words compiled by his public relations team.

In a remarkable farewell letter this month, a longtime Facebook executive, Alex Stamos, made this very point. Using blunt and very understandable language, Stamos attributed the company’s current predicament to thousands of small decisions and called for a change. “We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues,” Stamos wrote in the letter, first published by BuzzFeed. (Stamos served as chief information security officer at Facebook.)

That clarity—of words and thoughts and deeds—is what’s needed from Zuckerberg if he wants to lift his company out of the moral muck. One way to start would be for him to jettison what Orwell called “lump[s] of verbal refuse” and speak to Facebook users in clear English.

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