It's Mark Zuckerberg's turn to speak out about 'screwups'

This past year was unprecedented in Facebook's history, with criticism over its role in fake news and livestreamed violence. At F8, the CEO takes center stage.

Richard Nieva
Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
4 min read
James Martin/CNET

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook as a sophomore at Harvard 13 years ago, he probably didn't think his little website would be criticized for shaping one of the most polarizing presidential elections in US history.

But that's what happened when Donald Trump won in November. His detractors argue that deliberately false articles about rival Hillary Clinton on Facebook tilted the scales in Trump's favor. Two days later, Zuckerberg was asked to weigh in on the controversy. He called it a "pretty crazy idea."

Turns out it wasn't so crazy after all. He fueled even more debate over Facebook's role in media. The company was forced to make an about-face, and in December it released fact-checking tools to curb fake news. Zuckerberg last week went at it again, pledging to fight fake news just as Facebook targeted clickbait by training algorithms to better sniff it out.

That's just some of the controversy Facebook's faced in the last 12 months, arguably the most significant year in the social network's history. Zuckerberg was hammered over everything from violence and death livestreamed on the site -- including a video of a murder uploaded on Sunday -- to charges of perpetuating "filter bubbles" that warp the outlook of Facebook's nearly 2 billion users by force-feeding us only news that aligns with our personal views.

Those challenges are the backdrop for Tuesday, when Zuckerberg kicks off F8, Facebook's annual developer conference in San Jose, California. It's the biggest speech he delivers each year, and his keynote is essentially the social network's State of the Union address.

"They're at the point where they're such a big deal -- in the universe and to us -- that we notice when they screw up," says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. "Their ambition has highlighted their shortcomings."

Facebook certainly is a big deal. Last year, the company made $26.8 billion in advertising sales. Facebook and Facebook Messenger were also the two most popular smartphone apps in the US in February, according to ComScore. So the company wields a tremendous amount of influence over people as they go about their lives -- getting their news and information from the site and communicating with loved ones.

During his keynote, Zuckerberg, 32, is expected to talk about a range of topics, including chatbots, virtual reality and camera filters. But he'll also likely address Facebook's larger role on the world stage -- the site is the premier gathering place for about two out of every seven people on the planet. What he says matters, given that Zuckerberg has become a main attraction: a billionaire philanthropist who hobnobs with world leaders and has even drawn speculation as a presidential candidate.

Taken together, the black eyes Facebook endured this year amount to the company having to take an existential look in the mirror and grapple with its scale and influence. In February, Zuckerberg posted a nearly 6,000-word manifesto detailing Facebook's new modern-day mission and the site's evolving role in the world. Among the topics he brought up are using artificial intelligence to thwart terrorism recruitment and making Facebook a vessel for civic engagement.

A turning point

Some of the recent missteps have forced Facebook to become a different company than it was before. That moment when Zuckerberg shrugged off the influence of fake news as "pretty crazy" will end up being a turning point, said Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute.

"If 30 or 40 years down the line, someone writes the story of Facebook and how it's changed, I think it's that," Mantzarlis said. "He misspoke there, probably. It was the final issue that made them officialize their role in the media ecosystem."

In recent years, Zuckerberg's used the F8 spotlight to say something meaningful, talking beyond the software updates and product roadmaps that are standard fare for conferences like this. In 2014, right before he turned 30, Zuckerberg reflected on meeting his wife 10 years earlier.

Last year, he took a veiled shot at then-candidate Trump, condemning the act of "building walls" and preaching instead about bridging gaps.

"I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others," Zuckerberg said. "If the world starts to turn inwards, then our community will just have to work even harder to bring people together."

This year, Zuckerberg could use his stage time to address H-1B visas, which have become a hot-button issue with the Trump administration. The temporary visa program is a popular pathway to Silicon Valley employment for many foreign workers. Zuckerberg has long been an outspoken advocate of immigration reform. In 2013, he cofounded the group FWD.us, aimed at pushing policies that "keep the US competitive in the global economy."

Whatever he says on Tuesday, it's probably a far cry from what he was envisioning in that dorm room so many years ago.

This story was originally published at 5 am P.T.

The story was updated at 9:13 a.m. PT: To include a reference to a video of a murder posted on Facebook on Sunday.

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