Mark Zuckerberg just proved he has no clue how to fix Facebook

The most important piece of business journalism published last week was a 14,000-word article in the New Yorker titled “The Ghost In the Machine.” The headline is plucked from a 1967 book by Arthur Koestler, the central theme of which is that man has “some built-in error or deficiency which predisposes him towards self-destruction.”

In this case, it’s one man in particular: Mark Zuckerberg, the 34-year-old founder and chief executive of Facebook Inc. Over the summer, he gave a series of interviews to the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos.

What emerges instead is a portrait of a man who not only doesn’t know how to fix Facebook’s problems — which include the spread of political misinformation, the misuse of people’s data, and the accusation by the right that conservative speech is being stifled — he barely knows how to think about them.

A few examples: Osnos writes about Myanmar, where Buddhist extremists have misused Facebook to instigate “a campaign of hate speech that actively dehumanizes Muslims,” according to C4ADS, a nonprofit that focuses on global conflict. Facebook posts have led to riots and murder against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Facebook has known about its role in fomenting this violence since at least 2013, yet when Osnos asks Zuckerberg why the company has done so little to remedy the problem, he gets what amounts to a non-answer: “I think, fundamentally, we’ve been slow at the same thing in a number of areas, because it is actually the same problem,” says Zuckerberg.

On the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Zuckerberg remains astonishingly defensive, bristling at the idea that it helped President Trump win.

“I find the notion that people would only vote one way because they were tricked to be viscerally offensive,” he says. “Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.”

Fake news? “I feel like we’ve let people down and that feels terrible,” he says. But he thinks the whole issue is overstated.

Over and over, Zuckerberg betrays himself as being in over his head. But there’s a second issue the article brings to the fore: the extent to which Facebook’s problems were baked into the company’s original business model, and then exacerbated by some of Zuckerberg’s subsequent decisions.

It is now self-evident that if your company is built around “making the world more open and connected” there are going to be people who abuse that openness and those connections. Even so, a company with foresight can get in front of potential problems — and minimize them.

Instead, Zuckerberg chose growth at any cost as the company’s top priority. When executives were hired to do other things, like examine the possible misuse of data, they wound up quitting once they realized that was simply not something Facebook cared about.

Now here we are. Facebook has 2 billion users and some $20 billion in annual profit. Zuckerberg is a mega-billionaire. The company is one of the most powerful in the world.

Yet all that power and all that money can’t get it out of the mess it finds itself in. Indeed, Zuckerberg’s only solution is to keep throwing more money and more people and more technology at Facebook’s problems. But that is the technology equivalent of putting a finger in the dike to stop the flood.

A few days ago, I spoke to Roger McNamee, the Silicon Valley investor who was Zuckerberg’s mentor before he became one of Facebook’s leading critics. What people should take away from the article, he said, is that Zuckerberg and other tech wunderkinds — like Jack Dorsey at Twitter Inc. — “lacked the judgment to restrain themselves, and when they got caught they didn’t have the wisdom to appreciate that what they were doing was wrong. And they lacked the judgment to recognize that they needed to voluntarily change their behavior lest change be forced upon them.”

McNamee believes that there are four categories of Facebook harms: “on democracy, on public health with issues like addiction, on privacy, and on innovation because of its enormous market power.

“There is no fix that doesn’t result in a radical change in how Facebook operates,” he said. Which also means there is no fix that Zuckerberg is going to be able to bring about himself. “We shouldn’t care what he thinks anymore because he’s not going to save us,” says McNamee.

© 2018, Bloomberg Opinion

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