Will Mark Zuckerberg wake up to the destruction his creation helped unleash upon the world, just like Robert Oppenheimer did 70 years ago?
Mr. Zuckerberg is extremely bright. So smart he quickly learned Chinese in order to be able to communicate in his wife's mother tongue, and perhaps also because Facebook is still trying to penetrate the largest market in the world. It would be therefore fair to assume he's familiar with this headline, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita by a horrified and thoughtful J. Robert Oppenheimer after the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in July 1945. Some witnesses reported that Oppenheimer was actually very proud and relieved that the weapon worked, but maybe there's no real contradiction between the two feelings. It's fascinating to consider what Mr. Zuckerberg feels and thinks now, a short while after the election, as evidence keeps mounting about the instrumental part Facebook and other social media platforms played in the win of a clever, 8-year-old man-child candidate. President-Elect Trump is a perfect cast for the grown-up version of "Lord of the Flies", and probably the least qualified person to have ever won the presidency, excluding President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
Facebook claims they are just "connecting people", but social media is actually viewed as a main source of news by 44% of Americans, and the full picture is much more complicated: In August 2016, I wrote here that Trump, and a variety of other reactionist phenomena could not have happened without the unprecedented powers of the Hate-Distribution-Machine known as social media. The simple mechanisms via which social media promotes the lowest common denominator, prefers viral lies over complicated facts, generates fact-proof bubbles, and does away with any pretense of fact-checking, have enabled Mr. Trump, a professional attention vampire and a smart hate trader, to open a door to a new and terrifying set of possible futures. We now know this theory to be true; we know that viral fake election news outperformed real news on Facebook in the final months of the election, that in general, fake news are shared more than real news, that the "Denver Guardian" does not exist, that Mrs. Obama, the First Lady, wasn't really born a man, that most of Mr. Trump's ad dollars were spent on Facebook, pushing his vile and viral messages, that up to 20% of the campaign "news" on Facebook arrived from automated accounts (bots), and that Mr. Zuckerberg knows all this very well despite his denial - some of his employees are reported to have started an internal "mutiny" where they took independent action against election fake news. As it stands, this is too late, and the destruction is well underway. No one knows or can predict how Mr. Trump will behave (least of all Mr. Trump himself), but his first weeks as a President-Elect are not a pretty sight, and history teaches us to take authoritarian rulers very literally. Personally, I hope that Mr. Trump will stick to his habits, and will use the next 4 years to make his family wealthy beyond belief. I am deeply concerned he might trade his good old greed for a newly acquired taste for power. Let's wait and see.
If we return to Nuclear Energy as a metaphor, it is now painfully clear that social media, led by Facebook but by all means including Twitter as an accomplice, has been weaponized and deployed in a thoughtful and premeditated manner by Trump and his campaign. If we look for more updated metaphors, in some ways Facebook has also become "Westworld", a place where everyone is free to live their darkest dreams and shadow aspect, with little notion of truth and lie or fear of consequence, and probably inhabiting more bots than the wild WestWorld.
Is Mr. Zuckerberg in touch with the real world and with what his invention helped bring about, or is he a young version of Dr. Ford? Is he quietly whistling to himself "It's the end of the world as we know it (I feel fine)", blissfully in denial as demonstrated when he claimed that "99% of Facebook's content is real"? Is he deeply anxious and frightened, like so many in this new America and elsewhere, worried to his core and vowing secretly to use all his power and money (plenty of both) to at least partially rectify some of the horrendous destruction he helped unleash? Unlike Mr. Oppenheimer, who could not influence nuclear proliferation, Mr. Zuckerberg has full control of Facebook, and therefore a moral imperative. Just like with Mr. Trump, we'll have to wait and see if Mr. Zuckerberg will assume responsibility and accountability, or if we'll keep on getting opaque and elusive answers, mostly amounting to "It's not us, it's our algorithm", or "We're just a software company, not a publisher". Meanwhile, in a tiny sliver of silver lining, the New York Times and other real Newspapers, working with real journalists, committed to real stories, to the archaic concepts of facts Vs. opinions and right or wrong, have reported a sharp increase in new paying subscribers following the election results. In another recent development, the Oxford dictionaries picked their word of the year: "Post-Truth" - the word previously known as a lie.
It now remains for Mr. Zuckerberg and the rest of us to make our choices.