What news do people see? What do they believe to be true about the world around them? What do they do with that information as citizens—as voters?
Facebook, Google, and other giant technology companies have significant control over the answers to those questions. It’s no exaggeration to say that their decisions shape how billions see the world and, in the long run, will contribute to, or detract from, the health of governing institutions around the world.
That’s a hefty responsibility, but one that many tech companies say they want to uphold. For example, in an open letter in February, Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the company’s next focus would be “developing the social infrastructure for community—for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
The trouble is not a lack of good intentions on Zuckerberg’s part, but the system he is working within, the Stanford professor Rob Reich argued on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
Reich said that Zuckerberg’s effort to position Facebook as committed to a civic purpose is “in deep and obvious tension with the for-profit business model of a technology company.” The company’s shareholders are bound to be focused on increasing revenue, which in Facebook’s case comes from user engagement. And, as Reich put it, “it’s not the case that responsible civic engagement will always coincide with maximizing engagement on the platform.”