As 2019 dawned and Mark Zuckerberg announced this year’s personal challenge, I suggested it might be time to retire the concept altogether. Zuckerberg’s “challenge,” as he described in a Facebook post, would be to “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society.”
“Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting,” Zuckerberg wrote on January 8th. After his first conversation, he replied to a comment about the project by saying, “I have a dream list of leading thinkers in fields ranging from the internet and artificial intelligence to biology and climate change.”
Given the challenges facing the company this year, it seemed like an odd choice. As I wrote at the time:
A 2019 in which the Mark Zuckerberg Show takes center stage threatens to once again present our future as an oral exam — and one that is also incidentally being presented as live entertainment. I’m all for open discussions of the most pressing issues facing business and government — and I hope Zuckerberg chooses to sit down with some of Facebook’s more thoughtful critics for a lively debate. (I’m available!) And yet I can’t help but wonder, given all his other responsibilities, why Zuckerberg sees a series of live broadcasts as a particularly good use of his time.
As it turned out, he didn’t.
Over the next 11 months, Zuckerberg held just six discussions, and used the same format every time: everyone seated in an office somewhere, having a polite pre-recorded conversation with one or two people. (Only the first conversation, with Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, was truly public — held in front of a live audience.)
And as Kurt Wagner observed today, the people Zuckerberg chose to speak with were almost entirely the same sort of person that Zuckerberg is himself:
Almost all of Zuckerberg’s discussions were with fellow white men — who have always dominated the technology industry.
In the six discussion videos Facebook posted throughout the year, 8 of Zuckerberg’s 9 guests were male, and almost all of them were white. Seven were professors or doctors — and all but one were over the age of 40.
Broadly speaking, the first five chats focused on privacy, journalism, history, Facebook’s forthcoming Oversight Board, and health research. The final discussion, which landed on Monday, featured a conversation between Zuckerberg, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, and the economist Tyler Cowen. The most abstract discussion yet, it centered on the nature of “progress” — something Collison and Cowen wrote about for The Atlantic earlier this year. The word “Facebook” is mentioned in the discussion exactly twice.
So much for that big discussion on climate change. And so much for these interesting questions he once hoped to address, from his original post:
In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric? How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world’s biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration? How do we build technology that creates more jobs rather than just building AI to automate things people do?
On one hand, I remain skeptical of the value of in-depth conversations on social issues that are conceived, first and foremost, as a content marketing exercise for a giant corporation. On the other — those are some pretty good questions! And it might have been worthwhile to have Zuckerberg and his “dream list of leading thinkers” weigh in.
The most interesting of the six discussions, I thought, was Zuckerberg’s talk with Yuval Noah Harari, in which the author of Sapiens brought welcome historical context to our many dilemmas about platforms and governance. And as I wrote then, the discussion also revealed Zuckerberg’s thinking as worryingly underdeveloped:
Is that why these discussions ground to a halt? (It was two months before the next one, and nearly four more months till the one after that.) I don’t know, and Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In any case, if the idea was to galvanize public discussion, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Zuckerberg has started plenty of public discussions this year, mostly on accident — by pledging to fight Elizabeth Warren in that audio we leaked, for example, or by insisting on the right of politicians to lie in advertising. His best public discussion this year was an impromptu one — when he decided to broadcast a Facebook all-hands meeting in the wake of the leaked audio, giving the public a glimpse into what employees are concerned about and how he thinks about the challenges facing the company.
If nothing else, Zuckerberg’s near-abandonment of his 2019 personal challenge offers another good reason not to try another one in 2020. There’s a critical US presidential election in the offing, and that ought to be more than challenge enough.
In yesterday’s column I misread a Wall Street Journal story and said Facebook had offered the Trump campaign its largest-ever line of credit. I was wrong: the Trump campaign had requested the ability to process large payments using a credit card, which at that time Facebook did not have the capacity for. I’m sorry for the mistake.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending down: Employee activists at Google are protesting the company’s recent decision to fire four employees. “This is classic union busting dressed up in tech industry jargon, and we won’t stand for it,” they said.
Trending down: Ruthless quotas at Amazon are maiming employees. The company’s cutting-edge technology, unrelenting surveillance, and constant disciplinary write-ups push warehouse workers to be more productive and put themselves at risk.
⭐ Russian trolls aren’t actually changing people’s minds, according to a new study. Those who encountered tweets from Russia’s Internet Research Agency showed no change in their political opinions, attitudes, or degree of political engagement. OneZero’s Will Oremus tells us why this finding is significant:
That finding is noteworthy in itself, because while much has been written on the scale, reach, and tactics of Russian bots and trolls seeking to interfere in U.S. politics, there has been little to no peer-reviewed research quantifying their actual impact. That’s notoriously hard to measure, leaving previous studies to grasp at murkier metrics like the number of likes or retweets Russian posts received. The authors were able to do so only because they had already been running a survey of Twitter users’ political views for other reasons, and because Twitter last year published an archive of foreign information operations on its platform. They found that not only did users not change their ideology in response to IRA tweets, they also showed no change in their degree of partisanship, political engagement, or anger at the other side.
Senate Democrats proposed a new bill that would give consumers more control over their data and place stricter penalties on tech companies if they mishandle people’s information. The bill doesn’t yet have the support of Senate Republicans, and is unlikely to pass before the end of the year. (Ashley Gold / The Information)
NSO employees are suing Facebook for banning their accounts. The move comes after Facebook sued NSO for exploiting a vulnerability in WhatsApp to hack the accounts of human rights advocates and politicians around the world. Facebook also then banned the personal Facebook and Instagram accounts of multiple current and former NSO employees. (Emanuel Maiberg and Joseph Cox / Vice)
Activists are building a grassroots alliance to fight Amazon on a variety of fronts, including worker safety and surveillance. The news comes after an investigation from The Atlantic showed just how far the company will go to make employees more productive — efforts that can maim them. (David Streitfeld / The New York Times)
The California Department of Motor Vehicles is making $50 million a year selling drivers’ personal information, including names, physical addresses, and car registration details. The buyers include insurance companies, vehicle manufacturers, and prospective employers. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Fake newspapers promoting local candidates have been spotted across the UK ahead of its election. The papers are similar to the ones that popped up in Michigan recently, although they’re been distributed as physical leaflets designed to look like local news. (Ali Abbas Ahmadi / First Draft)
Public defenders need the same digital tools as police to help defend their clients. Those that can afford it are building out digital forensics labs to unearth evidence — like location data— that can potentially be used to exonerate them. (Kashmir Hill / The New York Times)
Banning encryption won’t help law enforcement catch criminals, according to this op-ed. The software already exists, and people who want to use it will continue to find a way to do so, whether or not it’s illegal, the author writes. (Riana Pfefferkorn / The Center for Internet and Society)
The generation of Russians who’ve grown up under Vladimir Putin now want to leave the country in record numbers, according to a new survey. Among 18-24-year-olds, 53 percent said they would like to emigrate. (Ilya Arkhipov / Bloomberg)
⭐ A 17-year-old girl, Feroza Aziz, posted a TikTok video accusing China of putting Muslims in concentration camps. The video quickly went viral, and Aziz’s account was subsequently blocked. The move sparked outrage, with people accusing the app’s Chinese developer, ByteDance, of censoring political views. BuzzFeed’s Julia Reinstein explains:
TikTok denied that Aziz’s ban had anything to do with her videos on the internment camps, but she still doesn’t quite believe it. “I still find it suspicious that TikTok took down my video right when my posts on China’s concentration camps were made. Doesn’t sound right to me,” she said.
The incident comes just a month after Congress raised questions about whether the Chinese app poses “national security risks.”
“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” wrote Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Tom Cotton. “Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings.”
TikTok advertising is still in its early days, but more companies are hiring agencies and influencers to help them create viral challenges. Soon, TikTok’s teen stars could be earning as much money as their peers on Instagram and YouTube. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
Companies like Sephora, Gucci, and Kiehl’s are using a powerful tracking tool to monitor their customer’s movements and shopping history. The tool, from Powerfront, creates avatars of each shopper to help stores improve their customer service. (Jonah Engel Bromwich and Jessica Testa / The New York Times)
Celebrities like Beyoncé and Mariah Carey helped turn Airbnb into a luxury brand. With the help of Las Vegas showman Jeff Beacher, the company pioneered the concept of using influencers to help raise awareness and get customers — largely by posting on Instagram. (Anne VanderMey / Bloomberg)
More people are using Google Maps to search for information about local businesses, a new survey from Brandify shows. The vast majority of respondents (77 percent) search Maps, compared to 35 percent who search Yelp. (Greg Sterling / Search Engine Land)
James Vincent explains:
You may have seen these images floating around social media followed by a trail of comments like “this is the dystopian future we were warned about” and “enter the mootrix.” They purportedly show an experiment being conducted in Russia to see if giving dairy cows VR headsets can reduce anxiety and increase milk yield, but — as you might have guessed — it’s not at all clear whether this is a genuine trial or an elaborate marketing stunt.
The evidence seems to point to a marketing stunt, but I expect the press to keep milking this story for some time.