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Mark Zuckerberg On Fake News, Free Speech, And What Drives Facebook

In a candid, wide-ranging interview, the CEO shares thoughts on where his company is headed.

Mark Zuckerberg On Fake News, Free Speech, And What Drives Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook [Photo: ioulex]

When Fast Company first wrote about Mark Zuckerberg, in the spring of 2007, he was just 22 years old and his young company, Facebook, had just 19 million users. Our magazine cover line, “The Kid Who Turned Down $1 Billion,” seems almost quaint in hindsight, given Facebook’s $400 billion market cap today and its 2 billion global users. But it was Zuckerberg’s first cover, and a lot has transpired since then.

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I recently sat down with Zuckerberg at Facebook HQ—a sprawling campus that’s only a few miles from the company’s original Palo Alto offices but a world apart in scale and sophistication. Our meeting was not a nostalgic revisiting of the past, but part of an examination into what continues to drive Facebook in the present and what role it wants to play in the future.

Fast Company‘s newest cover story highlights Zuckerberg again, a decade later, under the headline “Put Your Values To Work.” In recent months, many companies and company leaders have struggled to align their social, political, and business priorities. Zuckerberg himself has been forced to grapple with controversies around “fake news” and “filter bubbles”—one of many topics we touched on.

What follows is an edited transcript of our dialogue. While our cover story presents several different models for aligning a company’s values with its business, Zuckerberg explains here how and why Facebook’s core operations are mission-driven, what critics misunderstand about the company’s motivations, and why being a work-in-progress is part of the plan.

Fast Company: In mid-February you posted a long letter on your Facebook timeline entitled “Building Global Community.” What prompted you to address this topic?

Mark Zuckerberg: When we were getting started with Facebook in 2004, the idea of connecting the world was not really controversial. The default was that this was happening, and people were generally positive about it. But in the last few years, that has shifted, right? And it’s not just the U.S. It’s also across Europe and across Asia, a lot of places where folks who have been left behind by globalization are making their voices louder. That goes to the heart of what we at Facebook stand for as an organization, where our mission is to make the world more open and connected. I feel like someone needs to be making the case for why connecting people is good, and we are one of the organizations that I think should be doing that. You know, we talk about connecting everyone in the world and that is far from complete. We are almost at two billion people [at Facebook], out of more than seven billion in the world, so from our perspective we are earlier on in this than later. If you look at the arc of human history, hundreds of thousands of years, it is a story of how people have learned to come together in bigger numbers to do things that we couldn’t do separately. Whether that’s coming together from tribes to building villages, or building cities into nations, it has required social infrastructure and moral infrastructure, things like governments or media or religion, to enable people to work together. I think today we need more global infrastructure in order to unlock a lot of the biggest opportunities and solve some of the biggest challenges. So when you’re talking about spreading freedom or trade, or you’re talking about fighting terrorism, where a civil war in one country leads to refugee crises across multiple continents, these are not typically problems any one country has the tools by itself to go solve. I think we have a responsibility as a technology company at a pretty big scale to see what we can do to push on that.

FC: One view of business, epitomized by Wall Street, says that the purpose of a company is to maximize shareholder value and generate as much profitability as possible. Another view says that businesses and business leaders have a responsibility to take care of their communities. How do you think about that spectrum?

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MZ: I think Facebook has always been a mission-driven company. I didn’t start Facebook as a business. I wanted this thing to exist in my community, and over some number of years I came to the realization that the only way to build it out was if it had a good economic engine behind it. I think that increasingly, especially with folks who are millennials, that [view] is going to be the default. You know, when I started Facebook, there were a lot of questions around is this a reasonable way to build a company. And then when more millennials started graduating from college and we went to recruit them it became very clear that they wanted to work somewhere that wasn’t just about building a business but that was about doing something bigger in the world.

FC: Just before Facebook went public, you posted another long letter, titled Founder’s Letter. You wrote there that ‘we don’t wake up in the morning with the goal of making more money,’ right?

MZ: Yes.

FC: You didn’t repeat that sentiment in the new letter. Why not?

MZ: Well, this wasn’t exactly a follow up to the founder’s letter. The founder’s letter was written for shareholders who are buying into the IPO to understand how the company operated. So it was much heavier on values and internal operation and principles of how we work, whereas [the new letter] was much more focused on mission. Less about how we work and more about what we’re going to do. I don’t think how we work has fundamentally changed very much.

FC: You didn’t feel like that needed to be repeated, because it hadn’t changed?

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MZ: Yes. But you know, when you ask it like that, I do think these things always need to be repeated.

FC: Companies demonstrate their values in different ways. Howard Schultz at Starbucks might use his platform to pursue social agenda issues. You haven’t chosen to do that. At Salesforce, 80% of the employees volunteer time at nonprofits. You haven’t pushed to do that. Is there a Zuckerberg philosophy about how the business expresses its values?

MZ: I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want. A lot of companies do nice things with small parts of their resources. I would hope that our core mission is the main thing we want to accomplish, in that almost all of our resources go toward that. When I want to do stuff like invest in education and science and immigration reform and criminal-justice reform, I do that through the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative [a nonprofit foundation that he started with his wife, Priscilla Chan]. It’s not that people [at Facebook] don’t believe in that, I just think what we are doing in making the world more open and connected, and now hopefully building some of the social infrastructure for a global community—I view that as the mission of Facebook.

FC: Are there areas where Facebook sacrificed or risked dollars in order to stay true to that mission?

MZ: My experience is that people often shy away from hard decisions for longer than they should because they are worried about some bad effect. People talk about, oh this is going to hurt in the short term but help in the long run, right? And my experience is that the long run always happens sooner than you think. For example, when we didn’t sell the company early on, we had the opportunity to make a lot of money. All these people inside the company were trying to make this case, you don’t know that [Facebook] is going to be as big as you hope. But the reality was after we turned down those offers, it wasn’t some 10-year slog. Within a year it was obvious that that was the right decision. There were a lot of cases in our history where we’ve made hard decisions, and it has ended up maybe hurting us a little in the very near term but generally ends up being pretty positive over time. I think even when you take stances on social issues, it might frustrate people who don’t agree with you, but in general people appreciate that you believe in something. People want business leaders to be authentic and stand for things. One of the most frustrating things I read is when people assume that we don’t do something because it will cost us money. If you take, for example, some of the debates that are going on now around the news industry and misinformation. There’s definitely a strain of criticism that Facebook [allows] misinformation because it will make them more money. And that really is just not true at all. I mean, we know that people in the community want real information. Whenever we give them tools to get access to higher quality content, they’ll always go for that. But at the same time, we also believe in freedom of speech. People should have the ability to say what they think, even if someone else disagrees with that. And freedom of speech is a funny thing because people always want freedom of speech unless people disagree with them. So I don’t know, I think often when you make decisions that aren’t exactly what people want they think you’re doing it for some underhanded business reason, but actually a lot of these things are more values backed.

FC: When you saw the spread of information or news that wasn’t true, was that a surprise? Or did you think that it might happen, but the positive benefit of being more open outweighed any negatives?

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MZ: I still believe more strongly than ever that giving the most voice to the most people will be this positive force in society. But the thing is, it’s a work in progress. We talk about wanting to give everyone a voice, but then most people in the world don’t have access to the internet. So if you don’t have the tools to actually share your ideas with everyone, that’s not going to get you very far. We talk about giving people free speech but if they don’t actually, even in a country like the U.S., have the tools to be able to capture a video and share that easily, then there are limits in practice to what you can do. I just view this as a continual thing that every day we can come in and push the line further back on how many people have a voice and how much voice each person has, and we’re going to keep pushing on all of that. It just is this constant work. And at each point, you uncover new issues that you need to solve to get to the next level. Some people will say, oh you tolerate those issues. But the simpler explanation is that the community is evolving. We build new things, that surfaces new issues, we then go deal with those issues, and we keep going. Go back a few years, for example, and we were getting a lot of complaints about click bait. No one wants click bait. But our algorithms at that time were not specifically trained to be able to detect what click bait was. The key was to make tools so the community could tell us what was click bait, and we could factor that into the product. Now it’s not gone a hundred percent but it’s a much smaller problem than it used to be. Today, whether it’s information diversity or misinformation or building common ground, these are the next things that need to get worked on. It’s not like they are problems that exist because there’s some kind of underlying, nefarious motivation. I mean, certainly giving people a voice leads to more diversity of opinions, which if you don’t manage that can lead to more fragmentation, but I think this is kind of the right order of operations. You know, you give people a voice and then you figure out what the implications of that are, and then you work on those things. It’s just this constant work in progress. Giving the most voice to the most people can lead you to controversial things as well. There are laws in some countries that you’re not allowed to say certain things, and as a general principle we try to follow local laws. Do we agree with all of those? Not necessarily. There was a case in Pakistan a handful of years ago where someone tried to get me sentenced to death because someone created a [Facebook] group about encouraging people to depict the Prophet Muhammad. That was illegal in Pakistan but not around the rest of the world. We didn’t show it in Pakistan, but we didn’t take it down everywhere. Some people thought, hey that’s bad that you’re not taking it down. Some people thought, hey why are you taking it down in Pakistan? Our view is, we’re trying to give people as much of a voice as we can around the world, realizing that it’s not perfect at any given point in time but if we do our jobs then day after day we will be increasing the breadth of what people can do and fast forward 20 or 30 years and the world will be in a much better place.

FC: So flaws are always going to exist because there’s no perfection?

MZ: Yeah. And I think it’s fair to call them flaws because every system is imperfect. But I also think having this framework—that it is a work in progress—is probably a more realistic framing than, oh what you’re doing has all these flaws. I mean, it’s not wrong to say that it has flaws but I just wonder if that’s an overly negative framing, not just of Facebook but of any business or any system. You got here by doing certain things, and the world is a changing around you, and you need to adapt.

FC: The advent of technology through global culture has been terrific for folks in communities like yours and mine. But there are other communities that look at these changes—the rise of tech and AI and robotics and so on—and feel left out of it, scared by it. For those who are disproportionate beneficiaries of this technological ascent, do they have a disproportionate responsibility to take care of those who are being left behind?

MZ: I think yes but there’s a lot in what you just said. A lot of the current discussion and anti-globalization movement is because for many years and decades, people only talked about the good of connecting the world and didn’t acknowledge that some people would get left behind. I think it is this massively positive thing over all, but it may have been oversold. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad—it can still be massively positive—but I think that you need to acknowledge the issues and work through them so it works for everyone. Or else there is not going to be sustainable progress. I think in general in society the people who are the luckiest and most fortunate and have a position where they can help other people have a responsibility to do so. But even that aside, if you believe that this is a good direction, you have a responsibility to make sure it works for everyone because that’s the only way for it to actually work. Now there is a separate point in what you were saying around taking care of other people. I believe that a lot of the issues we’re currently seeing around the world are social questions of meaning and purpose and dignity and being a part of something bigger than yourself and are not only economic questions. Certainly the economic part is very big. But regardless of how well you’re doing economically, you’re going to have issues in your life, and you’re going to need a social support structure and community around you to keep you going. It may be that when things economically are going better some of those issues get papered over. It may be that when people are economically struggling they need a stronger social support structure. But it is always an important need, and I think we are overlooking the extent to which over the last 30 or 40 years some of the infrastructure for that social community has declined.

FC: And you don’t necessarily see technology as being an instigator of that decline?

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MZ: Well, it predates the internet. It may be because of industrialization or things like that. But it’s hard to draw a line with the internet. When you ask the question of, do you have a responsibility to take care of other people, I think on the one hand, if you’re fortunate, yes, you absolutely have the responsibility. And if you believe that this is the direction that things should go in, you have a responsibility to make sure it works for everyone. But I actually think making it work for everyone means making it so that everyone has a sense of purpose and meaning and dignity, which you need to enable people to build for themselves. It’s not like someone can come in and provide that for someone else. You need to create the structures to enable that.

FC: At the very end of your letter you mention building a global voting system. You’re not talking about political voting. What is that about?

MZ: I was talking about collective decision making. One of the things that we have struggled with recently is how do we have a set of community standards that can apply across a community of almost two billion people. One example that has been quite controversial has been nudity. There are very different cultural norms ranging from country to country. In some places, the idea that showing a woman’s breasts would be controversial feels backwards. But there are other places where images that are at all sexually suggestive, even if they don’t show nudity, just because of a pose, that’s over the line. The question is, in a larger community, how do you build mechanisms so that the community can decide for itself and individuals can decide for themselves where they want the lines to be? This is a tricky part of running this company. In setting the nudity policy, for example, we are not trying to impose our values on folks, we’re trying to reflect what the community thinks. We have come to this realization that a bunch of people sitting in a room in California is not going to be the best way to reflect all the local values that people have around the world. So we need to evolve the systems for collective decision making. It’s an interesting problem. There are certainly going to be a lot more global infrastructure and global enterprises going forward, there just hasn’t been anything at this scale yet.

FC: And if a part of the global community says, for instance, Jews are not human and they should be put to death, it’s appropriate for that to be reflected on Facebook?

MZ: Oh, I think there are always going to be lines.

FC: How do you determine where those lines are? Those lines are being drawn by a bunch of people in California also, right?

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MZ: This stuff is never perfect, but I think right now there is a lot of opportunity to improve a lot of people’s experience by creating more of a range. On nudity, for example, child pornography is never going to be allowed. It’s illegal, it’s wrong. So there is not going to be an option for that. But there are different ranges of what someone might think is reasonable to share, and might actually want as part of their experience, and we can open up a broader range of discourse. I don’t think having everyone conform to one line is necessarily ideal, but you are right that there are going to be other forces here.

FC: Is this job tougher than you thought it was going to be?

MZ: It is hard, and you never make everyone a hundred percent happy. But I think these are not zero-sum things. Often these decisions can get framed as you’re going to make one set of people happy and the other not, and I just think the most positive thing about technology is the ability to expand the pie, right? We might be able to have different policies for different places and even different individuals. There is no system around the world that can work like that today. And the thing that will enable that is technology. Depending on how controversial of a cycle we’re in, people might focus more on the positive or the negative, but in running a company like this you want to be a little more steady. You’re never going to get everything perfect, but every day you can come in and make progress and make people’s lives, on balance, better. And if you repeat that process for a very long period of time, the value compounds and you can make a very big impact.

Read More: Find Your Values

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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