Comments by a Facebook executive lead us to ask: What is the social network’s real mission?
Facebook is busy defending itself against accusations stemming from a revealing leaked memo from the past, in which a senior executive appeared to defend the very same irresponsible and unethical practices that were revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Business Insider describes the 2016 memo in which Facebook’s Vice President Andrew Bosworth affirmed “that ‘questionable contact importing practices’ and other so-called growth-hacking tactics were justified by the company’s mission, even if the platform was used to bully or even to coordinate terrorist attacks.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An imagined commitment to unequivocally virtuous behavior solemnly proposed as the true reason for a company’s existence and its driving force, despite the obvious fact that the culture that governs the actual conduct of its business has one rule that overrides all others: profit
The Guardian offers us the details of Bosworth’s defense of his position at the time: “anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.” That sounds like an appeal to the true mission Facebook is committed to: connecting people without regard for the consequences. The devil take the hindmost. But the sense of that mission appears to have changed, at least since the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica. Bosworth has recently stated, with aplomb, that not only doesn’t he agree with it now, but “I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”
AFP provides some complementary information on the mission: “The memo pointed out that connecting people can lead to good outcomes, such as finding love or preventing suicide.” This could be called the naively optimistic — if not hypocritical, goody-two-shoes — view that amounts to thinking, “so long as we do some good, the bad stuff doesn’t matter.” For a company that is in the business of affecting emotionally, economically and sometimes fatally the lives of nearly a third of the world’s population (2.2 billion in 2017), that sounds desperately irresponsible.
Mission statements function in the same way a credo does in religious practice. They seek to make a claim for existential truth about something historical — defining the specific identity of the institution and its beliefs — while formulating a framework of ideal behavior to which the members of the creed or institution are theoretically held accountable. But if the word credo in Latin means “I believe,” mission statements are intended to say, “we believe.” They represent not a personal faith, but a collective institutional commitment.
Richard Rumelt in McKinsey Quarterly points to a potential weakness of these formulations of an institution’s mission. They may be “pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights.” Facebook’s original mission statement in 2004 was “making the world more open and connected.” In 2017, when the problem of fake news occupied everyone’s attention, the company changed it to “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
We might ask ourselves: Did Facebook, between 2004 and 2017, make the world more open and connected?
The answer can only be ambiguous. Yes, in a technical sense, but most observers agree that it is not “the world” that has become better connected but hermetically disconnected silos of tastes and interests, if not simply narcissism. This is exactly the phenomenon that has led to the prevalence and deleterious effects of fake news. The same critique applies to the idea of the “power to build community,” unless we are expected to understand “community” as being mutually exclusive groups of like-minded people.
The two mission statements have one thing in common, which has become evident in the current scandal. They avoid stating the true mission — and very real accomplishment — of Facebook: to create the optimal conditions for targeted advertising. Citing the comfortable side of it — “connecting people” — and neglecting its more obvious commitment to building the marketability of the data from its users that the social network collects, stores and sells, they highlight the vacuous and misleading character of what Facebook’s executives present as “de facto good.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.