Why Do we Give Mark Zuckerberg So Much Power?

ADAM GINSBURG: Suffice to say, Mark Zuckerberg has had a rough couple of years.

Once the hoodie-wearing darling of the tech establishment, the Facebook CEO and controlling shareholder has rightfully come under pressure for his company’s blunders in allowing foreign actors to manipulate the platform and, more recently, for its failure to protect the sensitive data of tens of millions of users.

Public perception of his company has plunged. Congressional leaders have grilled him in hearings. Even SNL has skewered him.

Yet as we denounce Facebook and castigate Zuckerberg publicly, we blithely continue to use the platform or its affiliates. Whether it’s the ability to keep us in contact with friends and family over long distances, its ease of use as a news source, or its capability to help us forge connections with like-minded individuals, too many people still find functionality in Facebook or its more visual platform, Instagram.

Facebook is inarguably the most influential non-governmental organization in the world, with over one billion users every day and two billion unique active users every month. It reaches its tentacles into every single nook and cranny of the Earth, reaching areas that even governments have trouble administering. It knows more about us than our families do. And it is controlled solely by Zuckerberg.

Back in 2012, when Zuckerberg took Facebook public, he arranged a tiered shareholder structure in such a way that, despite only owning roughly 25% of its shares, he would command 55% of its voting power—in effect guaranteeing himself control of the company in perpetuity. Even in spite of his relatively recent personal pledge to eventually donate 99% of his shares to charity he will maintain his controlling stake in the company.

As Kanye West once eloquently noted: “No one man should have all that power.”

As Facebook’s chief, Zuckerberg basically has dictatorial authority over the organization’s priorities and actions. Through Facebook’s curation capabilities he is able to, in effect, govern morality. He can subtly alter the way we think through the content we are shown.  It is absurd for any person—unelected and unaccountable to anybody—to have such authority.

I do not mean to portray Zuckerberg as some Oz-ian figure—a diabolical puppeteer behind the curtain.  I genuinely do not think he has malicious intent nor an agenda to create worldwide chaos. To the contrary, I believe that he actually wants the best for humanity.

But he also has a responsibility to his bottom line, and that responsibility can oftentimes become blinding.

Facebook is, first and foremost, a data mining company, generating 98.5% of its revenue through selling ads based on users’ personal data. As its pages have become increasingly saturated with advertisements, Facebook’s algorithms have become more efficient at generating personalized content.

It appears that a good amount of people, many of whom profess to have nothing to hide, do not mind if some of their data is auctioned off to third-parties if it means they can scroll uninterrupted through their feed. After all, at this point, everyone should recognize the maxim that, “if the product is free, then you are the product.”

If divulging some of our data to advertisers in exchange for a free product were Facebook’s only fault, then fine; that’s just a part of doing business.

Yet as we saw in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook and its uber-specific sets of mined data could be used as a weapon wielded by foreign adversaries to turn us against each other. That, in and of itself, is not directly Zuckerberg’s fault.  But his response to the allegations of foreign intrusion on his network were extremely troubling, and the root of my fear.

Even when it became clear that Russia had nefariously utilized Facebook to sway our election, Zuckerberg rejected the notion as a “pretty crazy idea.” It took immense public pressure and the threat of congressional shaming to get Zuckerberg to admit to Facebook’s ignorance, if not complicity, in the assault on our democracy.

The fact that Zuckerberg put his blinders on, hunkered down, and initially refused to concede to reality is a frightening prospect, given that he controls the most powerful company in the world. What if circumstances arise that demands a swift reaction, and he unable or unwilling to step up to the plate? What if business interests compel him to ignore a dire situation?

Zuckerberg may want what’s best for humanity, but that does not obscure the fact that he is human and, by extension, fallible. We should all be wary of the power we have implicitly vested in this one man and his organization. While he may seem benevolent, he nonetheless has near-dictatorial power—an alarming fact in an increasingly volatile world.

Max Magid