As the 2020 presidential election approaches, America’s domestic political atmosphere has become increasingly tenser, forcing all kinds of different people to pick sides. The “moderates,” who don’t want to be identified with any political party, face the most difficult situation, frequently finding themselves the targets of attacks from all sides. Today, the prime example of this phenomenon is Facebook, along with its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
A few days ago, Zuckerberg gave a lecture at an American university with strong political undertones. The style of this talk was totally different from his past lectures: during the talk, he flaunted Facebook as an upholder of America’s liberal democratic system of values, while harshly criticizing China’s administration of the internet. This lecture attracted a lot of attention in the Western media, but it did not seem to do anything whatsoever to dispel international doubt and criticism of Facebook and Zuckerberg.
Over the past year, Facebook has become one of the most controversial companies in America. Politicians from both major parties have criticized the company. President Donald Trump has accused Facebook of party bias and of efforts to silence his supporters, while Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has criticized Facebook for allowing politicians to publish “fake news” that benefits Trump. To quell people’s doubts regarding political prejudice, Zuckerberg met in private with many conservative news outlets, hoping that they would provide some helpful and positive press. But instead, this move led to even harsher critiscism from the Democratic Party and many progressive leaders.
In addition, Facebook has become the main target of America’s domestic purge of technology giants. When the company proposed releasing a digital currency called “Libra,” it provoked panic directed at tech monopolies from the U.S. government, Congress and society at large. Financial regulators believe that this currency could have an impact on America’s financial security, while Congress and many civil liberty organizations are concerned that it could further intensify the invasion of personal privacy by tech giants. Furthermore, Facebook and Google are both still facing nationwide antitrust investigations. No matter which party wins next year’s election, these investigations are likely to accelerate.
On an international level, Facebook has lost its luster. The so-called crisis regarding Russian intervention in the U.S. election kicked off a global era of weaponized social media. Some national governmental and political powers have begun to actively use social media to disseminate controversial, extremist content. Social media has become a tool for extremist organizations and public figures to use to incite grassroots political fervor and normalize the violence that ensues. Facebook’s passive approach to removing “extreme voices” has received harsh criticism from countries that suffer from cyberviolence. In these countries, the outcry for Facebook to more thoroughly supervise itself is constantly growing.
This situation jeopardizes Facebook’s fundamental ability to do business. Facebook’s entire business model is based on openness and connectivity. Zuckerberg believes that the internet’s openness and connectivity have created new demand for Facebook’s services, and meeting this demand is profitable for Facebook. This model is based on the fundamental assumption that Facebook can keep expanding its user base and continuously strengthen the connections among its users. Facebook is intentionally avoiding the subject of the discrepancy between this system of values and the best interests of the country. Facebook also hopes to break into the Chinese market, expanding its global user base within the confines of Chinese law in order to create further opportunities for profit.
Today, Facebook is clearly facing an insurmountable obstacle. The politicization and weaponization of social media have raised the costs of openness and connectivity. Such openness brings about disagreements among users from different countries; such connectivity brings about conflicts among users with different value systems. This has fundamentally changed the environment in which Facebook operates. Going forward, Facebook will face ever-rising supervision costs, as well as an increasingly fragmented user base. When it comes to profit, the outlook is bleak. Against this backdrop, Zuckerberg seems to be taking the approach that Facebook should vehemently cater to America’s political correctness, hoping that this will help reverse its situation, but this mindset is fundamentally wrong.
The author is a research associate at the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
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