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Who Should Mark Zuckerberg Debate About the Future of Technology?

The Facebook CEO has promised a series of public debates about the evolution of tech’s role in society. We asked Ringer staffers who they’d most like to see spar with Zuck.

Mark Zuckerberg facing the silhouette of an anonymous Facebook avatar Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Like many people, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes New Year’s resolutions. In years past, those have included such goals as killing his own meat, automating his home, and visiting people in Middle America. For 2019, Zuckerberg has resolved to “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society.”

In the past few years, Facebook went from being heralded as a crucial social fabric connecting the world to derided as the very thing tearing it apart. The consequences of Facebook’s original “break things and move fast” ethos are unfolding in real time, and now the CEO is trying to find ways to reckon with reality.

It’s unlikely that Zuckerberg’s idea will yield much more than good-natured philosophical debate—broadcast on either Facebook or Instagram, naturally. It’s also difficult to imagine that Zuckerberg will invite any of his most fervent detractors. But … what if he did? Here, we let Ringer staffers imagine who we’d want to see invited to Zuckerberg’s forum. —Molly McHugh

Zeynep Tufekci, Technology Sociologist and Professor

Victor Luckerson: The Russian propaganda campaign on Facebook was both the spark for the ongoing implosion of the company’s image and a distraction from the core problems with the Facebook platform. Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science and a columnist for The New York Times, has consistently and astutely seen past the political spectacle of the past two years to identify Facebook’s fundamental failings. Ahead of the midterms, as Facebook showed off its “war room” aimed at preventing foreign influence, she noted in an essay that “we’re focusing too much on the foreign part of the problem … and not enough on how our own domestic political polarization feeds into the basic business model of companies like Facebook and YouTube.”

Tufekci has the training and the tenacity to see beyond the small-scale debates Silicon Valley would prefer. She began her professional career as a computer programmer before studying sociology, which gives her a broad perspective on the problems that tech companies often try to solve via code. She was warning about the possible corrosive influence of social media on politics long before President Donald Trump’s election made it fashionable to dunk on Facebook. And she’s good at goading the Great Entrepreneurs of Our Time into dumb moments—Elon Musk’s idiotic joke accusing one of the Thai soccer team rescuers of being a pedophile was part of a back-and-forth with Tufekci on Twitter. Zuck vs. Zeynep would not only be entertaining to watch—it would be illuminating for the lawmakers who still can’t see past the digital forest for the trees.

Tristan Harris, Technology Ethicist

Molly McHugh: The former Google employee has staked his reputation on trying to reverse the effects of his industry. Harris founded the Center for Humane Technology and the Time Well Spent initiative to try to encourage developers and designers to rethink how they’re creating technology platforms. Regarding the 2016 election, Harris called Facebook “a living, breathing crime scene.” Harris has been critical of Facebook’s own “time well spent” campaign, which does little more than tell users when they’re “all caught up” on Facebook and Instagram.

Of course, Harris is still a technologist he’s an engineer and developer. But his specific critique of Facebook is that it’s an advertising business, not a social network. Facebook is constantly skirting that issue, but Harris wouldn’t let the CEO divert away from the topic. Also, as a developer, Harris has the requisite knowledge to question Zuckerberg specifically about mechanisms that are designed to intentionally “hijack” and exploit people. It’s not often that Zuckerberg is questioned about Facebook functions by someone who could offer exact alternatives.

The other benefit of putting Harris in front of Zuckerberg, of course, is that it would give an industry insider who’s critical of his peers the opportunity to take one of them to task, face to face. If Harris—an admired anti-Facebook advocate—rises to the occasion, then perhaps other Silicon Valley exiles will step up to turn on the monsters they’ve created.

Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, Parents of a Sandy Hook Victim

Alyssa Bereznak: In 2012, Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa lost their child, Noah, in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since then, they have endured harassment both online and in person, perpetuated by fringe, anti-government conspiracy groups that claim the event was a hoax. In an open letter published in The Guardian this past July, they detailed the ways that Facebook has allowed these groups to continue operating and how the company failed to offer any significant protection for their family.

Pozner and De La Rosa’s story is an excellent (and incredibly disturbing) example of how lives can be ruined when a massive online platform takes no responsibility in moderating information, and prioritizes growth over the well-being of the communities it’s meant to serve. Based on the many other examples we’ve seen in this vein, the way in which social media platforms plan to deal with similarly delicate situations should be a major topic when discussing the future of technology. And who better to challenge Zuckerberg on this conversation than the people who have suffered from his platform’s carelessness?

Kate Knibbs, Ringer Staff Writer

Justin Charity: Kate asks me rude, profound questions in public spaces all the time. She keeps me accountable. As the cohost of our very own podcast, Damage Control, she’s as insightful about terminal ethical lapses and subsequent public relations fiascos as she is about technology, culture, and the disastrous intersection of these two phenomena in general. Kate knows her way around the goddamn internet, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who has largely ruined the internet. If anything, Mark should ask Kate questions. Maybe he’ll learn a thing or two. Mark, come on Damage Control.

Nobody

Kate Knibbs: There are many incisive technology critics and analysts who make very compelling critiques of Facebook and big tech, several of whom have been named by my colleagues. But I don’t think their participation in Zuckerberg’s resolution would do anyone but Zuckerberg any good. This debate series is nothing more than a calculated attempt to launder his public image. His company’s role in society has been heavily and consistently scrutinized for years, and Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to undergo course corrections at the expense of the bottom line. In fact, Facebook’s most recent controversy was connected to its antipathy toward critics; according to The New York Times, Facebook attempted to discredit them by employing a Republican research team to investigate and create inflammatory content about its opposition. Why should critics—who have already written and spoken publicly about their issues with Facebook and big tech’s roles in society—agree to rehash their arguments on Zuckerberg’s terms, when there’s absolutely no indication Facebook will take them seriously?

I suppose Zuckerberg’s plan could give the invited participants some decent publicity, but they’d have to accept that publicity in exchange for participating in a cynical spectacle that benefits one of tech’s most damaging monopolies. I’d rather see Zuckerberg abandon his series of talks after no one takes him up on the offer so he can return to his unfulfilled 2018 resolution: fixing Facebook.