Facebook chief attempts to steer the conversation with ‘tech talks’

The platform has been facing increasing scrutiny and criticism following a series of crises involving privacy and data-sharing concerns, election tampering and more. Will this move help?

Facebook wants to position itself in a positive light for 2019, but many questioned its CEO’s attempt to bolster the platform’s image.

On Tuesday, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announced his yearly challenge:

Every year I take on a personal challenge to learn something new. I've built an AI for my home, run 365 miles, visited…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, January 8, 2019

In the past, these challenges included personal goals and invitations for users to view his progress throughout the year. After facing continuing criticism, however, the tone and focus of the challenge has drastically changed.

The Guardian reported:

Zuckerberg’s personal challenges have become a key part of his public persona in recent years, and they have evolved from traditional New Year’s resolution fodder (running, reading, eating veggies) into corporate communications bonanzas. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump Zuckerberg embarked on a series of photo-ops with regular people across the country.

But in 2018, as it became increasingly clear how Russian operatives used the platform to interfere in the US presidential election, the CEO pledged to buckle down and “focus on fixing” his company. Zuckerberg wrote at the end of the 2018 that he was “proud of the progress we’ve made” in addressing those challenges, though most people outside of the company would agree Facebook still has plenty of work ahead.

In his post, Zuckerberg wrote:

There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology’s place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people’s hands? In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric? How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world’s biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration? How do we build technology that creates more jobs rather than just building AI to automate things people do? What form will this all take now that the smartphone is mature? And how do we keep up the pace of scientific and technological progress across fields?

My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society — the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.

Phys.org reported:

The announcement follows a difficult period for the social media company, which has come under fire for its handling of private consumer data and its brass-knuckles approach to company critics, among other issues.

Zuckerberg, without directly acknowledging the criticism, said he recognized the need to get out of his comfort zone.

“I’m an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they’d mostly speak for themselves,” he wrote.

In his post, Zuckerberg admitted that the privacy, speech and election crises Facebook has come under condemnation for are “complex” and would take longer than a yearly challenge would fix. He vowed that the company would “continue focusing on them for years to come.”

“Zuckerberg’s 2019 resolution tries to position the CEO as part of finding the solutions to the issues tech has caused, rather than a key factor in their creation,” Business Insider reported.

However, many people, including several journalists, responded to the announcement with skepticism.

Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin wrote an article titled, “Mark Zuckerberg’s 2019 resolution: Convince people Facebook isn’t evil.” Gizmodo staff reporter Rhett Jones called the challenge “awkward.” Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor for The Verge, penned the headline: “It might be time to retire Mark Zuckerberg’s annual personal challenge.”

Others criticized the challenge as a PR stunt designed to drive the current narrative about the platform and calm additional crises that might pop up.

CNN Business reported:

… [E]xpect Zuckerberg’s public debates to be fairly scripted events, rather than a raw and unfiltered window into the CEO’s mind.

In previous years, Zuckerberg ran a mile a day, started a book club and escaped the Silicon Valley bubble by traveling to dozens of new states. The latter resulted in an endless series of carefully staged photo-ops of Zuckerberg doing normal person things like posing on an assembly lines and posing while feeding a cow.

Newton, which said the challenge “[reached] the limits of what content marketing can do,” wrote:

So far as I know, all of Zuckerberg’s challenges have reflected a sincere interest in the subjects at hand. But his PR team has sought to maximize their reach, as part of an all-consuming effort to cement Zuckerberg as the human face of the company in the hopes that his calm, genial presence will earn goodwill for the company.

Considering the growing discontent with Facebook’s policies among social media users and journalists, along with recent headlines that include Vietnam alleging that Facebook broke the country’s cybersecurity law and former employee allegations that Facebook was a toxic workplace, the company’s PR team has their work cut out for them.

What do you think of Zuckerberg’s challenge, PR Daily readers?

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