In the dawning days of the millennium, a great harvest was promised. A new class of young revolutionists, who saw the world as not yet living up to its grandeur and thus felt the duty to order it in their vision, vowed a season of abundance and grand prosperity. Among these strivers was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose pursuit—equal parts singular, noble, and naive—was to rewire communication. Beset by a pioneer spirit, Zuckerberg sculpted ambition into reality, upending the way we document, exchange, and consume information. In doing so, he has in part revolutionized the capacity of human potential. But just as a harvest rewards, so will it forsake. What has since transpired from those early moments of millennial innocence is as tragic as it was inevitable. The cost of utopia, we are now seeing, may be too high.
I won’t recount Facebook’s indiscretions here—many of my WIRED colleges have mapped the chaos since news first broke that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica mined personal data from 87 million users across the social network—but it is helpful to understand the extent of the carnage. That Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that worked on President Trump’s 2016 campaign, likely used that data to target voters and shape history, exposes one of the cracks of the Great Utopian Project: Innovation is only as good as the spirit of the people who brandish it.
The problems, though, are bigger than one platform. Connectivity, as it’s been digitally reshaped in the form of email and social media, is now polluted with all manner of contagions. We’ve gained a lot, but what we’ve lost—trust and empathy, possibly the right to an honest democratic process—registers with even greater consequence.
The online outbreak that followed the Cambridge Analytica breach was marked by an anti-Facebook campaign steered on Twitter, with tech luminaries like WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton imploring users to #DeleteFacebook. “When you put people’s precious photos and private personal data on the auction block behind their backs every day, you’re not going to be a king for long,” the actor James Woods tweeted Monday. Ever the dramatist, he punctuated his sentiment with #WeaselZuckerberg.
Sometime around 2009, during my first year of graduate school, I decided I’d been spending a dangerous amount of time on Facebook and deleted my account. The sweet, wild suck of social media was becoming too much of a distraction to the attention my course load demanded. In the decade since I’ve roamed the internet’s ignitable terrain; I traded one craving for another. Akin to Facebook, the early days of Twitter and Instagram were defined by moments of community and what felt like idyllic uplift. Dewy-eyed photos and memes and harmless flirtation; a constant pulse of genuine interaction.
What we now know is what we’ve always known, that a harvest rots if not properly tended to. In time, users transformed Twitter into a locus of quarrel and toxicity. The site was not without value; it operated as a podium for activism and became perhaps our generation’s most preeminent cultural engine. But its evils persisted. Hate speech infected timelines, abusive behavior was ignored by site regulators, and outside agents used the app to foster terrorism. Instagram, too, transformed from a Garden of Eden into a home for fake news and Russian trolls with an appetite for anarchy. Through most of these fires, large and small, the tenor among the platforms’ leaders echoed with a startling harmony of indifference.
We’ve gained a lot, but what we’ve lost—trust and empathy, possibly the right to an honest democratic process—registers with even greater consequence.
Just how much faith should we put in digital ecosystems that, as we’ve witnessed in the past, will at some point forsake us? As it stands, what we’ve lost continues to amass. Users are rapidly jettisoning their faith in Facebook, and if it turns out the social network helped to erode democracy in the blazing light of day, what then? Consider this too: If our data is all we are—online, at least—such unbridled connection to social media platforms is a kind of tyranny. It’s a relationship where power is distributed menacingly and unequally, where personal information is ammunition. Networks that once granted control now rip people of it.
This week, Zuckerberg is testifying before Congress. It’s his first appearance on Capitol Hill, and he’ll be using at least part of it to tell lawmakers Facebook has already taken steps to correct its afflictions. Sitting before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Tuesday, he told legislators that the company has started fact-checking photos and videos as a part of a larger plan to prevent abuse and propaganda. He shared how engineers are working to scrub pages from the Russia-based Internet Research Agency from Facebook and Instagram. He spoke about security and audits, about “giving people control,” about “enabling innovation.” He showed contrition and looked genuinely uneasy in the spotlight.
“Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring,” Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. “But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake.”
That is all good and well, but it won’t be enough. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said, we can no longer trust Zuckerberg to fix these problems alone. There’s that word again—trust. It’s such a fragile and slippery thing. So easily broken. Because even if Facebook figures out a way to heal and grow back, to erect better safeguards, to essentially replenish the harvest, how can we trust that the land shouldn’t just be left fallow? How can we trust that our personal data won’t again be used as a bullet against us?
Despite taking hold in our lives with damaging regularity, the architecture of loss is never quite the same. It’s why what happens now, how Zuckerberg responds, and how we respond to him, will be the true test of human ingenuity—a reminder that though innovation remains prey to the perversions of human immorality, it does not have to succumb to it.