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Tom Baxter: Mark Zuckerberg’s magic wand isn’t going to clean up Facebook’s issues
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address April 12, 2016, at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. - photo by Associated Press

Earlier this month Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, in so many words, that his company is moving on from Facebook. Given the outsized importance Facebook and other social media have assumed in our public life, that news has not received as much attention as it deserves.

In a memo paradoxically titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking,” the Facebook co-founder discerns a shift in the public’s taste from the openness of the digital town square to the privacy of the digital living room.

“As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms,” he wrote.

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Tom Baxter

That will mean less focus on Facebook and Instagram, Facebook’s popular photo and video-sharing app, and more on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the private messaging service Facebook bought in 2014 for $19 billion.

Public social networks will continue to play a role, but increasingly, as he sees it, people will have “simple, intimate places” where they have control over who sees what they share. In that space, Zuckerberg wrote, “People should be comfortable being themselves, and should not have to worry about what they share coming back to hurt them later.”

To achieve this goal, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook — that is, Zuckerberg — was “committed to working openly and consulting with experts across society.”

Depending how the federal criminal investigation into data sharing between Facebook and other tech companies — which we learned about last week — goes down, that may not be enough.

As grandly as he pronounces on the future, Zuckerberg is beginning to look more and more like that classic image of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, his wizard hat drooping, surrounded by an army of brooms he has conjured up but can no longer control.

This was demonstrated in gruesome fashion in Friday’s massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, which was live-streamed by the white supremacist who killed 50 people. Bereft of anything more meaningful to say about the way in which the killer had used Facebook as an instrument of outrage, the company announced Monday that in the 24 hours after the shooting it took down 1.5 million images from the massacre, 1.2 million of those before they could be viewed. That, unfortunately, leaves some 300,000 images that were online for at least some period of time.

It’s easy to understand after last week why Zuckerberg might long for a platform where people can just put their digital feet up, kick back and not worry about mass murder or Russian bots. But even if he could bring this privacy-focused vision into reality, would it really be such a good idea?

Already, social media has contributed to the division of Americans into information silos, where networks of the like-minded share information that conforms to their beliefs and filter out uncomfortable facts. Comfy as the vision of the virtual living room may seem, it’s almost certain to make these divisions deeper.

And while it might be nice to think otherwise, people should worry about what they share coming back to haunt them later, both in general and particularly on the internet.

Privacy, which Zuckerberg has embraced after erasing so much of it, can become an issue when it involves criminal activity. That problem has already arisen in social media, and the vision memo does nothing to resolve the questions that arise when law enforcement agencies might have reason to monitor an individual or group’s online activities.

Some kind of sorting out does seem to be inevitable. Facebook has become, among other things, a fundamental point of conflict between people’s views about what should be public and what should be private and led to a lot of confusion about what the appropriate boundaries are. But that is going to be a messier process than the one Zuckerberg envisions.

After the vision memo, Zuckerberg released a memo to the Facebook staff last week announcing the departure of two of the company’s top executives and a consolidation in which all division heads report directly to him.

The founders of WhatsApp and Instagram have already left the company, mainly because of disagreements over privacy issues. Zuckerberg’s still waving that magic wand, but the water keeps getting higher.

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.

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