clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Do We Want to Live in Facebook’s Utopia?

The company recently unveiled a range of tools meant to further “social good.” What happens when a single company tries to build a global infrastructure?

Facebook’s utopia Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Wednesday, Facebook summoned nonprofit workers and journalists to debut new community tools at its second annual Social Good Forum. Mark Zuckerberg did not attend last year’s inaugural event, which was described to me by repeat attendees as “much smaller.” This year, attendees streamed into an airy space in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, and Zuckerberg delivered the keynote speech, beatific in a gray T-shirt.

The 33-year-old CEO orated with the platitude-heavy pep of a veteran politician, emphasizing that his year-long peregrination across America’s cornfields and diners had taught him that what people really care about is community. “What our job really is, is to go see people who are already using our platform to do good and then build tools to help you do even more,” Zuckerberg said, echoing his gargantuan manifesto from last February, “Building Global Community.” The audience responded like a rapt rally, clapping and wiping away tears. “Together, we can ignite a fundamental change in the world,” Zuckerberg assured the crowd.

Zuckerberg does not attend every important company event; he sent a lawyer when Facebook was called to testify before Congress about its role in compromising the 2016 election. But his presence at the Social Good Forum made canny sense. Facebook’s reputation is in free fall. It stands accused of a litany of cardinal sins, from fomenting ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to allowing Russia to meddle with American democracy to corroding the very notion of objective reality. Zuckerberg—Facebook’s “last true believer,” as Vanity Fair recently put it—wants to win back people’s hearts. He is on a mission to convince the world that Facebook is good for it.

Facebook’s vice president of social good, Naomi Gleit, joined Zuckerberg to announce the company’s slate of new and improved do-gooder tools, which ranged from simpler crowdfunding—Facebook eliminated the transaction fees for campaigns aimed at nonprofits—to the expansion of a pilot program that helps people donate blood. Some announcements were straightforward gestures of benevolence, like a $50 million annual fund to contribute and match user donations to nonprofits.

Zuckerberg enthused about the company’s suicide prevention program, which now uses artificial intelligence to identify Facebook users who might be in danger. If a post suggests a person might be preparing to hurt themselves, this algorithm can flag the post and alert a moderator before a user does. If this moderator determines that someone is in immediate danger, they can use Facebook’s location tools and data to figure out the appropriate local authorities to call. “In the first month alone in the U.S., these tools have helped first responders reach out to more than 100 people," Zuckerberg beamed. In other words: Facebook may call 911 if it thinks you are suicidal.

It was hard not to feel gratitude when Zuckerberg described what this tool had done. One hundred lives, saved already. I thought of other use cases: Maybe Facebook could use AI to detect when someone was in the throes of opiate addiction and dispatch first responders upon a suspected overdose. Perhaps it could use AI to detect when someone was trapped in an abusive situation. Could Facebook eradicate suicide, overdoses, and murder? I daydreamed, briefly, that the solution to all these problems was an all-powerful nanny corporation graciously saving the world. Then I snapped out of it.


It is difficult to argue with the value of tech tools that save lives. But it’s also dangerous to talk about these programs without seriously considering what they demonstrate. None of these tools address the underlying social issues causing problems like depression, lack of mentorship, or lack of funding and infrastructure around health and emergency services. What they do, instead, is offer incremental fixes. Lack of affordable health care means no treatment for devastating mental illness? Facebook can’t treat depression, but it can use big data to flag when you’re on the precipice of despair. Lack of affordable health care means you can’t afford cancer treatment? Again, Facebook can’t treat cancer, but it can help you crowdfund. Global warming and poor civic planning mean you’re trapped in a flood? Facebook can’t stop the causes, but it might help a Good Samaritan come fish you out with their boat.

In lieu of solving large-scale problems, many of the new feel-good tech tools prove, more than anything, how large-scale Facebook’s ability to monitor people is. Facebook has emphasized that it developed the suicide prevention AI while working with partners like Save.org and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and that moderators call law enforcement only if a “credible threat” is established. A Facebook employee stressed to me that this happens only “in the minority of cases.” If the suicide-prevention AI is as efficient at predicting behavior from big data as the company says it is, this means Facebook is capable of accurately predicting human behavior and running the real-world interference it deems appropriate. The efficacy of this AI tool underlines just how much Facebook can do with the countless status updates, links, photos, and other personal data we feed its algorithms: It can save our lives. That it could also ruin them is worth examining.

What is stopping Facebook from using its predictive AI to tell police officers who is most likely to commit a crime or to help ICE find undocumented workers? Facebook would not do either of those things right now because a large swath of users would revolt. When it comes to ICE and immigration issues, Mark Zuckerberg has publicly supported immigration reform, going so far as to debate Facebook users in the comments on his posts. He and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have provided scholarships to undocumented students. Facebook’s leader is clearly morally opposed to using his technology to rat out undocumented people. However, the company’s current opposition to using technology in this way does not guarantee that it never will. There is no safeguard in place to prevent it from doing so. Furthermore, Facebook board member Peter Thiel is currently using his technology company, Palantir, to assist ICE in deportation. It is not unthinkable that the next CEO of Facebook might not have the same politics as the Zuckerberg family.

Any anxiety around the misuse of these particular tools is secondary to a more general misgiving that a monopolistic corporation has accumulated this much power and framed it as a godsend instead of a horror show. The Social Good Forum wasn’t merely a bid to generate goodwill. It was, perhaps inadvertently, an alarming flex: Facebook wants us to know how much we need it.


During Zuckerberg’s keynote, he spoke of how Facebook changed its mission statement in 2017, which sounded more impressive than it is. It is demonstrably true that the company’s social conscience has evolved; after all, it began as a way to judge the “hotness” of undergraduates, and Zuckerberg called his early users “dumb fucks.” It is also true that some of the tools launched at the Social Good Forum will help people, by assisting hurricane survivors in finding shelter, by matching people who need blood transfusions with willing donors, by sending a lifeline to people struggling with mental illness. But crafting an altruistic-sounding mission statement and creating a set of potentially useful (but also terrifying) tools does not mean Facebook’s actual mission has evolved. The $500 billion company’s most basic aim is still to maximize profit for its shareholders. The tools introduced in the forum, while certainly useful in the immediate sense, do nothing to change Facebook’s drive to become ever larger, ever more present, ever more profitably intertwined in society. Rather, they showcase how Facebook adroitly scouts new ways to seem like an essential service that everyone should love.

Facebook is rushing in to bolster its safety and community tools at the exact moment that the U.S. government is profoundly disinterested in building up a social safety net—when, in fact, it seems intent on cutting up the remnants of social safety programs. This is not a coincidence. Zuckerberg has long strove to cover gaps in service, to provide infrastructure where none exists. With Internet.org’s Free Basics program, Facebook offered free internet service to people who did not have it, in countries like India. However, the “free internet” limited users’ experience of the internet to Facebook and some partner sites. It meant that Facebook would be the internet for many in these countries, which would put local internet providers at a disadvantage, as they could not offer the same price of zero. As the “free internet” schematic essentially created a fast lane for Facebook and its partners, many critics argued that it violated net neutrality principles. India banned the program because of net neutrality.

The roadblocks with Internet.org have not chastened Zuckerberg, who continues to imagine Facebook as a sort of global fascia, intimately connecting and supporting all aspects of society. “We’re getting to a point where the biggest opportunities I think in the world ... problems like preventing pandemics from spreading or ending terrorism, all these things, they require a level of coordination and connection that I don’t think can only be solved by the current systems that we have,” Zuckerberg told The New York Times last April.

We cannot pretend that Facebook itself is an NGO, or that Mark Zuckerberg has constituents. Facebook is an incredibly successful for-profit company, and Mark Zuckerberg has customers: the advertisers. We, as the users, are his product. Facebook needs users because it needs our data, but its ultimate goal is markedly different than that of a nonprofit or a government agency. No matter how many volunteers Zuckerberg hugs or how many 5,500-word techno-utopian declarations of accelerated global togetherness he pens, the company does not exist primarily to help people, to provide support, or to nurture communities. As the Social Good Forum highlights, Facebook may do all of those things on the side, but it does them in service of a much different goal than that of a local community center or federal agency. And Facebook is not held to the same standards as the older institutions that have provided integral social scaffolding. As a company deigning to help out, it doesn’t have the same oversight or transparency requirements as government programs. It can change how it operates at any time, it can cease operation of these community tools at any time, and it doesn’t have to explain itself. This is especially frightening when one considers how open Zuckerberg has been about his intention to make Facebook into global infrastructure. Do we really want a global infrastructure controlled by a single company beholden to no one but its shareholders?

Zuckerberg may genuinely want to make the world a better place, but his philanthropic inclination is inextricably tied up with his quest for more power, and his philanthropic innovations are also meant to further his company’s dominance. The bottom line takes precedence. After all, Facebook continues to exploit loopholes and minimize its taxation—taxation that could fund crucial social services. Aggressively pursuing the lowest possible tax rate while hoarding $32.3 billion in cash overseas is likely the savviest business move Facebook could make, but it’s certainly not helping the world. Thinking of the obscene stockpile the company is sitting on makes its pledge to match $50 million in nonprofit donations look, appropriately, like more of a conciliatory gesture toward the plebes than anything remotely resembling a philosophical overhaul.

Earlier this fall Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, tweeted a rebuttal at people who wanted Facebook to become better at monitoring hate speech and foreign interference. Stamos argued that putting Facebook in charge of censorship was far more fraught than most people realize. “A lot of people aren’t thinking hard about the world they are asking [Silicon Valley] to build. When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers,” Stamos wrote.

The Social Good Forum made it more obvious than ever that Facebook wants to help build up the world. It would be wise to heed Stamos’s advice and think hard about whether it’s the one we want to live in.