Another View: Approaching an existential choice for Facebook

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Facebook, that blue-barred, addictive haven for the showy, the argumentative and the lonely, no longer deserves our trust.

It's not just that the social media giant has stumbled — allowing user data to be collected and exploited by Cambridge Analytica, failing to stanch the flow of inauthentic information from Russia and elsewhere, hiring a communications consultant to shovel dirt on the company's critics — but that it shows no sign of changing the way it operates.

It's time for Mark Zuckerberg to step aside from the company he founded and still controls. Let him take his billions and find something new to do.

Once upon a time, Mr. Zuckerberg had a brilliant idea: Provide an easy-to-use platform for people to populate with information about themselves, and that would enable them to form networks of like-minded people. The platform would be free to users, and Facebook would sell advertising to companies and causes that wanted to reach them.

For a long time, it was a jointly beneficial arrangement. But as Facebook has grown and become powerful, it has shown a repeated disregard for its customers, carelessness about their data and reluctance to respond meaningfully to criticisms. It seems the company's response to each crisis is to apologize publicly, refocus on its marketing and delay or decline to make significant operational changes.

As a New York Times headline read this month: "Delay, Deny and Deflect."

In the wake of the deeply reported and thoroughly damning Times article about the company's tactics and culture, Mr. Zuckerberg's response was to call a company meeting, describe the newspaper report as bull manure and threaten to fire anybody who leaks information to reporters.

This is not the behavior of a person who believes "When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place," as Mr. Zuckerberg has said. Rather, it is the behavior of someone who believes himself to be at war — at war with would-be regulators, with media critics and angry users.

Maybe this was the natural course for a company that has connected something like 30 percent of the world's population, entered the Fortune 500 and become a potent influencer of online behavior. Maybe rapid growth and head-turning success makes people blind to the moral cost and social damage their product exacts.

But it mustn't always be so. Like many wildly successful startups, Facebook should recognize it must adapt to the market that it has helped to reshape. It's time for a new generation of leadership from people who take a broader view of the company's conduct and obligations, its need to restore trust with its customers and the way it should connect with its internal and external audiences.

Most of us have spent a lot of time on Facebook, connecting with old friends, showing off our leisure-time activities and scoring political points. But it's past time to ask ourselves whether this is the way we want to, as Mr. Zuckerberg says, speak our voices and exercise our power.

For we have seen repeatedly who really wields the power in this arrangement. And it's not us.

We're approaching an existential choice for Facebook: Either Mr. Zuckerberg and his sidekicks leave, or they risk seeing the public leave.

— Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, Nov. 22

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