Like all tech leaders, Mr. Zuckerberg is often hailed as a visionary, but his primary talent is as a reactor. His true skill is not in seeing ahead, but in looking back and fixing where Facebook has failed. And what’s noteworthy is that when he marshals Facebook’s considerable resources to address a problem, Mr. Zuckerberg has a track record of making things right.
I am not asking you to blindly accept that Facebook will be able to completely address the role it plays in modern propaganda wars. On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.
What’s more, Mr. Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to the question of Facebook’s role in the election was marked by a reflexive defensiveness.
“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” he said at a tech conference days after last year’s presidential election. Since then, he has slowly — too slowly — come around to the idea that social media may not be the force for good in the world that he and other optimists always promised.
But it is worth noting that this sort of thing has happened before. Throughout Facebook’s history, on questions of privacy and advertising and business strategy, he has repeatedly fallen behind, then issued blog posts begging for another chance to put things right.
Often these messages conform to a template that he has honed over the years. He will usually begin with a note of reflection, sometimes issuing an outright apology. Often, he will underline Facebook’s central tenet of transparency and openness: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” he wrote in 2006, in one of the earliest of these addresses (people were very upset that Facebook had begun News Feed; what innocent times).
Next, he will offer a specific plan for the future, often soliciting feedback from users. And he tends to end on a ringing plea for another chance, as he did this week: “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections,” he said in his address on Thursday. “But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”
This promise reminded me of a very…