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Mark Zuckerberg apologized. Now he has to fix Facebook for real

Facebook's CEO defiantly refuses to let Russian propaganda, the Cambridge Analytica scandal or hate-spewing trolls ruin his creation. We’ll see how that turns out.

James Martin / CNET

Mark Zuckerberg pretty much invented modern social networking from his dorm room at Harvard 14 years ago. Then it turned into a monster.

He's not the only genius whose inventions changed the world, only to watch in horror as their idealistic visions were destroyed. There's J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who helped invent the atomic bomb and then devoted his life to nuclear arms control after he saw its destructive power. Orville Wright saw the airplane as a tool of peace, not a purveyor of war. And of course there's the fictional Dr. Frankenstein.

They all failed, by the way, to change what their creations had become. Zuckerberg isn't done trying.

This week, after spending the last two months apologizing for a privacy blunder that left Facebook's 2.2 billion users, as well as its investors, advertisers and regulators around the world, saying it's time to rein in one of the most important channels for communications and news in the world, Zuckerberg stood before more than 5,000 developers at the company's annual F8 conference and preached.

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, struck a more considered tone during his company's developer conference this year.

James Martin/CNET

He talked of responsibility and idealism, of innovation without thoughtlessness. Of moving fast, without breaking as many things. He was still the defiant and powerful Silicon Valley wunderkind -- but a little less so, too.

"I believe that we need to build technology to help bring people closer together, and I believe that that's not going to happen on its own," Zuck said to a crowd packed into a convention hall in San Jose, 20 miles south of Facebook's headquarters. "This is how we are thinking about our responsibility, to keep people safe and also to keep building."

Under any normal circumstances, this might sound like normal tech industry fluff. But in the past few years, Facebook has gone from being a celebrated world-changing technology to the tool of Russian propagandists, data mining companies like Cambridge Analytica and, of course, trolls who spew hate around the web.

All these things have overshadowed the happy stuff about Facebook. They made us -- and legislators around the world who have the power to regulate -- re-examine the faith we'd put in tech companies, and the trust we'd given them.

Society's decades-long honeymoon with Silicon Valley was ending, and it was something even Zuckerberg acknowledged.

"There's no guarantee that we get this right. This is hard stuff. We will make mistakes and they will have consequences and we will need to fix them," Zuckerberg said. "It's not enough to just build powerful tools. We need to make sure they're used appropriately, and we will."

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Meet the new Zuck

After two months of public beating, punctuated with a combined 10 hours of testimony before three congressional committees in Washington, Zuckerberg spent his time on the F8 stage signaling that things were going to change.

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We heard time and again this week that Facebook had a newfound sense of responsibility.

James Martin/CNET

It started with his uniform. Gone was his years-old dress code of hoodies, grey T-shirts and blue jeans, swapped out for a more mature sweater and dark pants.

Zuckerberg's announcements were peppered with a newfound restraint too. For 14 minutes, nearly half his speech, Zuckerberg talked about data privacy, election integrity and fact-checking articles posted to the site. When Zuckerberg finally got to announcing new features for Facebook, like a dating service to take on Match.com and Tinder, he immediately noted it was designed with "privacy and safety in mind from the beginning."

He even scooped his own presentation, announcing 85 minutes before the F8 festivities began a new feature to clear people's web and app histories from Facebook. "One thing I learned from my experience testifying in Congress is that I didn't have clear-enough answers to some of the questions about data," he said. "We're working to make sure these controls are clear, and we will have more to come soon."

Taming the monster

Zuckerberg has defended himself by saying that when Facebook started, few would have guessed he'd be battling state actors. "I wouldn't have really believed that that would be something I'd have to work on 14 years later," he told CNN in March. 

He's right, of course. But that doesn't mean he's off the hook, either. After all, Facebook made him rich, with his personal fortune estimated at $69 billion. That's from a lot of targeted ads pitched into our news feed and based on the data that we share with Facebook. 

This week, at least, Zuckerberg seemed to show he gets that he's got to step up.

Whether he can tame the monster he's created is still unclear. Zuckerberg said he understands the need to be more transparent, though the company has declined repeated requests for an interview with him. Meanwhile, Facebook said the number of users it tallied logging in each month rose, not fell, during the scandal. And last week it reported sales and profit that beat even Wall Street's lowered expectations.

But history is littered with stories of slow-moving disasters.

The company's next earnings report, three months from now, will give a more complete picture, since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke two weeks before Facebook closed the books on its first quarter. 

Zuckerberg says he's building a company for the long term. Some of his biggest bets, like turning virtual reality into the future of how we use computers, are part of that vision.

But fixing the mistakes he's made and then getting back on track isn't easy. And Zuckerberg knows it.

"The hardest decision that I made this year wasn't to invest so much in safety and security. That decision was easy," he said. "The hard part was figuring out a way to move forward on everything else we need to do too."

Now to find out if he can.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.