Facebook’s Season of Atonement Is Here

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Saturday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg marked the occasion with a remarkably contrite post to his followers: “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better. For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

Zuck’s uncharacteristic self-humbling reminds me of the regular expressions of regret by Asian technology executives. Long gone is Zuckerberg’s pugnacious assertion that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that the social network had been weaponized as a purveyor of misinformation and fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Under intensive scrutiny by both houses of Congress and special counselor Robert Mueller, Facebook is now in full retreat. For Zuckerberg, this is turning into the season of atonement.

Facebook’s about-face has been more than rhetorical. The company has turned over to Congress the 3,000 political advertisements that it traced to Russia and pledged to bring more transparency to election advertising on the site. Zuckerberg has also promised to more aggressively delete fake accounts and do everything in his power to ensure free and fair elections.

But practical moves and rational arguments have little impact in the middle of a political hurricane. Last week, Zuckerberg responded to an attack by President Trump that the social network leaned left. The social network does more good than harm by allowing direct access to candidates and self-expression on a variety of topics, Zuckerberg argued. Writing yesterday on the New York Times opinion pages, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at University of North Carolina, called this a “preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

The current tempest around fake news and subversive advertisements brings to mind past mini-storms that have consumed internet giants like eBay, YouTube and MySpace, around topics like copyrighted content, counterfeit goods and pornographic material. The script here is usually the same. These largely automated platforms get massive quickly, boosted by the contributions of their enthusiastic users. Then it is discovered that bad agents gamed the system and added illicit materials to the mix. The tech companies at first disavow their responsibility to act, then acknowledge it, then (if it’s not too late) turn their technological prowess into booting this material from the network altogether.

And now here we are again. Facebook scaled to impressive heights thanks to a self-serve advertising platform that was largely unmonitored and libertarian sharing mechanisms that give even fringe news and opinions a viral bump. The difference this time is that the stakes are now much higher, and Facebook has to assume corporate responsibility amid a unique conflagration of congressional hearings, a special prosecutor and a super-charged political environment. That’s going to take some savvy maneuvering, and likely many upcoming months of full-throated contrition.

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