Zuckerberg plays defense

Mark Zuckerberg's 2019 goal was to engage in 'conversation' and host a series of 'public discussions' about the future of technology in society. 

What he means by 'public discussions,' of course, is a tightly-controlled PR maneuver, where Facebook gets to control the narrative, and, hopefully for them, the conversation.

That was on show yesterday as he took the stage for one of these conversations at Aspen Ideas, where he spent the entire time positioning himself as the only adult in the room:

"We’re past the point where it makes sense for Facebook to unilaterally make decisions" and that "Breaking up these companies wouldn't make any of these companies better.... You would have those issues, you'd just be much less equipped to deal with them."

That tells us a lot about how Facebook is playing defense against a wave of antitrust law: acting as if it genuinely wants to be involved in the conversation already, naturally allowing it to guide the process from the start. 

When pressed on Zuckerberg's co-founder, Chris Hughes, calling for a Facebook break-up, the CEO deflected the blame:

Zuckerberg pushes back against Chris Hughes’ call for a Facebook breakup, saying breaking up Facebook into smaller companies wouldn’t solve issues like misinformation. He points to YouTube and reddit, which he says are smaller yet still face some of the same challenges. He says the prospect of a breakup “feels nice” but "we want to make sure the things we do actually address the problems."

This comment is an act of 'whataboutism,' which expertly paints Facebook as only one of the problems in the room, rather than the problem, despite only one of these companies having two billion users logging in every single day. 

This also comes through in the way Zuckerberg talks of acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, where he uses language like "Instagram joined us" and "when WhatsApp joined," rather than "when we purchased this company." 

As Facebook increasingly finds itself on defense, it's getting really good at playing these angles, trying to look like it 'invites' oversight and review, while still dominating the process to ultimately control the conversation. 

Like in a salary negotiation where you shouldn't name a number before the other side to avoid 'anchoring' expectations, Zuckerberg is trying to define that ground floor for antitrust regulators: don't break us up, but do anything else! Yet, still, Facebook is distinctly unable to moderate its own platform, let alone define a policy it can stick with.

Facebook is a giant, and Zuckerberg is right, in a way, that it's past the point where it makes sense for Facebook to unilaterally make decisions indeed, which is exactly why it should be broken up, regardless of how painful or messy that might be.

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