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How Facebook Has Shaped Democracy


And I'm Audie Cornish with All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: This month, we're looking at how technology shapes our democracy. And there's no way to talk about the power tech has over our choices without looking at Facebook. The company has had a rocky year as it has had to face up to questions about how Facebook was used to influence the 2016 election.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: We welcome everyone to today's hearing on Facebook's social media privacy.

CORNISH: And that forced a rare appearance by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg before lawmakers on Capitol Hill in April.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I'm sorry.

CORNISH: New Yorker writer Evan Osnos spent the summer interviewing Zuckerberg and dozens of people inside and out of the company. He's here to talk more about it. Welcome, Evan.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: I want to talk about some of the scandals the company has faced over the last year. Let's start with Cambridge Analytica and this conversation about how Facebook was used in the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 U.S. election. At the end of the day, does Zuckerberg get why people look at them as a problem and a problem in the context of this 2016 meddling?

OSNOS: I think it's beginning to sink in, but it hasn't sunk in probably enough. He's coming to grips with the fact that people no longer view Facebook as this novel, new addition to their lives. And that has been whiplash for him because as he said, you know, for the first 10 years of Facebook, basically people gave him positive press all the time, and he never really thought much more about it. And now there is this very serious national conversation about what role technology and specifically social media plays in our democracy...

CORNISH: In the spread of misinformation.

OSNOS: Exactly, the spread of misinformation and addiction and the effects on our health, on our happiness, on our sense of alienation or connection. And he has been slower than he should have been to embrace that. And he's kind of creeping up to the point of acknowledging that.

CORNISH: You write that as Facebook expanded, so did its blind spots in regards to global communities. And you give the example of Sri Lanka, where after a Buddhist mob attacked Muslims this spring over a false rumor, a presidential adviser was quoted as saying, the germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind. What are some of those blind spots?

OSNOS: Well, for a long time I think Facebook was able to explain to itself that even when there were negative side effects of the growth of social media, things like violence in Sri Lanka or in Myanmar or in India, that those were the necessary costs of historical change. I think that the internal narrative was our goal, our central purpose is to connect people. And that language almost took on a kind of talismanic quality. And what they're recognizing and coming to terms with is that there are a lot of negative consequences of that.

CORNISH: Now, I want to play a clip from the congressional hearing back in April. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg a question.


ORRIN HATCH: If so, how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, we run ads.

HATCH: I see.

CORNISH: An exchange like this does not give one confidence that Congress is ready to regulate Facebook in...

OSNOS: Right.

CORNISH: ...A serious way. How was it received inside Facebook?

OSNOS: Facebook was fundamentally relieved when Mark Zuckerberg went in front of the Senate because there really weren't a whole lot of hard questions he couldn't answer. But it was also a sign that there is change that is going to happen from Washington. This period when Washington was not going to regulate them at all is coming to an end. And I think what they're trying to do is steer that process as much as they can.

CORNISH: In the meantime, there's been a vote, so to speak, from Wall Street because in July, Facebook's stock...

OSNOS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Experienced the largest one-day drop on Wall Street history. Is there a sense that there's a kind of reckoning?

OSNOS: As big as that drop was, actually, inside Facebook they said, look; this is the routine part of business. We're investing - as they put it into security - and we're going to take a hit on our profits. But it is a clear sign that the way the world thinks about Facebook is entering a new phase. The downside consequences matter. And they're going to be evaluated on the basis of that. And I think Wall Street's momentary loss of confidence was a sign of something bigger to come.

CORNISH: In the meantime, you found a CEO who is fairly isolated - isolated from...

OSNOS: Right.

CORNISH: ...Criticism, isolated from feedback within his own company. Am I reading that right?

OSNOS: Absolutely. One of the most interesting things that I sensed about him is that he is aware of his own seclusion. As he put it, you know, being in the Silicon Valley bubble is a problem. He went on a listening tour to 30 states.


ZUCKERBERG: I'm here with my friend Pete Buttigieg, who's the mayor here.

OSNOS: And the truth was it felt forced.


ZUCKERBERG: So I've been going around to different states to see how, you know, different communities are working across the country.

CORNISH: Another example of how he's tried to do this - he once posted a Facebook Live video in 2016 just kind of, like, at home.


ZUCKERBERG: Hi, I'm live here in my backyard smoking some meats. So I'm here, and I figured it would just be fun to see what everyone is doing and hanging out on the Internet. So what's up? What are you guys all doing this afternoon?

OSNOS: What he's trying to do is figure out a way where he can actually not find himself as out of touch with where the American public is as the company has been over the last two years. And they've been sort of racing to try to rebuild confidence. But you can't do that by going out on a listening tour. You have to do that by building it into the leadership of your company. Who are the people you're listening to? Are they giving you bad news? Are they giving you unwelcome opinions? Because if everybody around you just says more and better and bigger, then you're not going to be able to make those hard choices.

CORNISH: What surprised you about the Mark Zuckerberg of today?

OSNOS: I think he has come to grips with the fact that the first wave of public fascination with social media is ending. But he doesn't yet have an answer for what's going to follow. He doesn't know what it means to be more than just a tool that is put into the hands of the public, and then they decide what to do with it. He doesn't have answers to the questions of, how do we define the boundaries of free speech; how do we control the risks of contributing to violence? These are really hard problems. And they're not technical problems. They're problems of human affairs. And that is new territory for him.

CORNISH: How does Mark Zuckerberg see Facebook's role when it comes to elections, politics, democracy? Does he have a grasp of that?

OSNOS: He does now. It's been a very painful process to learn it. I think if you'd asked him this in October of 2016, right before the election, he would have said, look; it's up to national governments to protect their own institutions and protect their democracy. He's come to recognize that there is a unique responsibility that comes with having a platform that is larger than any country on Earth. And that means - and it's a slightly daunting prospect that the integrity and sanctity of elections around the world do now rest to some degree on the shoulders of Mark Zuckerberg and his employees at Facebook. And he does take that seriously.

CORNISH: Are they ready?

OSNOS: We won't know, to be blunt, until those elections happen. There have been a few elections this year in which they had been able to prevent the kind of rampant disinformation that was such a problem in 2016. They've taken down a couple of big information operations in the last few months. But they don't have a measurement system that helps them know before the fact. So there will be a lot of eyes on Facebook during the midterm elections.

CORNISH: New Yorker writer Evan Osnos - his story "Ghost In The Machine: Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy?" is out now. Thanks for speaking with us.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.