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Mark Zuckerberg: More 'division' now than in a long time

At an event celebrating Facebook's 13th birthday, Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg talk about the world's tensions, Facebook Groups and, um, littering.

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Mark Zuckerberg talked about the "division" in the world.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, two of the most influential people in Silicon Valley, haven't been shy about speaking out since President Donald Trump took office.

When Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 temporarily banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Zuckerberg was one of the first tech CEOs to comment, offering up a pointed rebuke on his Facebook page. Sandberg, who was initially criticized for remaining silent, eventually followed suit with a missive on her page. On Wednesday, she spoke about the political climate during an onstage interview at a conference.

Earlier this week, they also alluded to recent tensions in the world while meeting a small group of everyday Facebook users invited to the company's Menlo Park, California, headquarters for what they billed as "Friends Day."

"This is a time in the world where there's more division than there has been in a while," Zuckerberg, in his standard gray T-shirt and jeans, said Tuesday. "That means that connecting with friends and bringing groups together is probably more important now than it ever has been, or has been in a very long time."

Facebook invited Groups users from around the world.

James Martin/CNET

How intimate was the setting? The room was set up with about 20 colorful chairs configured in a circle, with Zuckerberg and Sandberg at different times leading the discussion. About six media outlets were invited to watch (although we weren't invited to ask questions during the proceedings).

For Friends Day, a gathering to celebrate Facebook's 13th birthday on February 4, the company invited people from across the world who use Facebook Groups to talk about what they're doing with the platform. Two men with amputated legs represented a support group for other amputees. Three attendees were from Girls Love Travel, a group that helps women safely organize trips. Two women were from a group that tries to help people of color with mental illness. One guy has a group for runners who pick up trash along the way.

Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, had a similar message to Zuckerberg's.

"It's obviously a challenging time for our country and our world," she said. "Things feel divisive, they feel scary. A lot of people feel like their voices aren't being heard. And they're really afraid... I think all of us feel kind of unsettled."

But while Facebook's leaders lightly touched on how divided the world has become, in recent months the social network has been accused of helping to stoke that division. After the US presidential election in November, Facebook was criticized for creating so-called "filter bubbles," causing people to have a distorted view of what's happening in the world. That's because the world's largest social network has a news feed that's designed to show you stuff you're likely to be interested in, so the argument goes that you're probably seeing things that already align with your political viewpoints. (The Wall Street Journal has highlighted this divide with a feature called "Blue Feed, Red Feed.")

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COO Sheryl Sandberg listened to personal stories from users.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook has been trying to address that issue. Last week, it made major changes to its "trending topics" feature. Instead of seeing a list of news stories personalized to your individual tastes, everyone will see the same set of articles -- a move that seems to be part of an effort to present people with more diverse viewpoints.

At the gathering on Tuesday, Zuckerberg offered that the Facebook Groups users in the room were part of solving the problem. "Some of this division is all over the world. It's not just an American phenomenon," Zuckerberg said. "Part of what we need to do as a world to come together is build the kind of communities that you guys are."

Facebook Groups has more than a billion users worldwide. During the election, one of the surprise storylines was the success of a "secret" Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters called Pantsuit Nation. In the months since the election, membership has swelled to almost 4 million and the group now has a book deal. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg said Facebook has been good at connecting small groups like friends and family, but needs to improve at helping larger communities of thousands or millions of people.

Zuckerberg also asked the Facebook users what else they want from the Groups platform. A few suggested subgroups, so people within groups could subscribe to specific parts of the group. Another suggested the company create tools to make it easier for members to meet up offline.

As the feedback came, Zuckerberg listened intently, nodding and replying "interesting" every so often.

"Building out Groups and communities is going to be one of the big focuses for the next few years," he said. "The functionality is pretty simple compared to what it needs to be."

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