Last week, Facebook became an adult.
This may seem like an odd thing to say about the world's fourth-largest company by stock market value. Facebook could also rightfully claim it had its worst week ever (so far). It was dealing with the ramifications of Russian propagandists using Facebook to stir U.S. social dissent, claims that it's censoring refugees fleeing Myanmar and outrage for allowing people to target paid messages to bigots. Facing a shareholder lawsuit, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg also spiked a stock restructuring that would have solidified his control of the company.
This white-hot glare is what happens when a company is big, powerful and rich. That status makes a company the punching bag of politicians, the media, customers, suppliers, consumer watchdogs, investors and anyone else who has a grievance, whether legitimate or not.
The backlash is a deserved consequence of size and influence. It happened to Exxon Mobil during the mid-2000s peak of oil prices and growing concerns about climate change. It happened to Goldman Sachs and other big banks after the carnage of the 2008 financial crisis. And now it's Facebook Inc.'s turn for a lashing. There could be a support group for companies that are grappling with the fallout of their supersized power. Google would bring the doughnuts.
What makes a company a grown-up is the quality of its response to that harsh treatment. Last week, Facebook belatedly took public responsibility for how powerful it is and accepted the world's scrutiny. Zuckerberg acknowledged the obvious: Facebook can be a tool for good, and a destructive force. Welcome to adulthood. It only gets worse from here.
The first step over the threshold to adulthood is to accept that a company's actions or inaction may have significant consequences on people's lives or the fate of nations. Facebook had been in adolescent denial for a long time.
Soon after November's hotly contested U.S. presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was painfully dismissive of his social network's role in amplifying noxious misinformation about the candidates: "I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea," he said in November.
It was always an odd claim. Facebook pitches Ford and Coca-Cola on its power to shape people's minds about their products. How could the social network claim it lacked the power to influence people's views on hot-button social issues or political candidates? Soon after Zuckerberg's comments, President Barack Obama also urged Zuckerberg to take more seriously the threat of Facebook's abuse for political disinformation, the Washington Post reported.
After months of soul-searching, more good sleuthing about ways Facebook is used to influence political races or social views in many countries and prodding from outsiders and Facebook's own employees, the company's message evolved. Facebook started to say the social network was an unwitting megaphone for election-related misinformation, but mostly this abuse wasn't politically motivated. Rather, people looking for a quick buck circulated bogus information on Facebook, like a false post that said the pope endorsed Donald Trump for president.
Last week, denial officially died. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy," Zuckerberg said Thursday in a contrite speech. Being a grown-up means acknowledging the 2 billion people who use Facebook every month don't all have pure hearts. Some of them see Facebook as a tool to spread hate, distort people's opinions or spread financial scams.
It's also apparently no longer "a crazy idea" that Facebook can tilt a national election. Zuckerberg said the company was monitoring the social network to make sure mischief-makers weren't abusing Facebook to steer last weekend's German national elections.
Facebook said it planned to offer more transparency about the sources of paid political ads, and it pledged to share information with election officials and other technology companies about online risks in elections. In response to demands from Congress, Facebook also said it would voluntarily hand over advertisements purchased, the company believes, by organizations with ties to the Russian government.
Facebook was vague about how its election advertising transparency measures would work, and it's not clear whether everything Facebook is doing about its election-tampering headaches, or other misuses of its social network and advertising systems, are simply temporary face-saving measures to avoid a crackdown by government officials. And as anyone who lived through their 20s can attest, the path to adulthood isn't a straight line but more of a meandering with some sojourns back into adolescence.
Still, I believe something has permanently changed in Facebook's view of itself and its role in the world. The company has little choice. At the close of U.S. stock markets on Friday, the world's six most valuable public companies were all in the technology industry. And there is now louder debate about whether the benefits of free and open communication, unlimited access to information and convenience offered by the products of tech giants are outweighed by downsides like authoritarian misuses, the concentration of personal information in the hands of a tiny few and contributions to economic inequality.
Unlike $100-a-barrel oil, the influence of technology is not ephemeral. All that means the burden of adult responsibility is fully on Facebook's shoulders, and there is no turning back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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