It is unfortunate that this past May Facebook felt compelled to invite members from conservative media leadership to join a discussion of bias against conservative content. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are a demonstrably impressive duo when it comes to leading technology driven companies. In this space however, I believe both Zuck and Ms. Sandberg are operating outside of their wheelhouse. It’s not their fault. Silicon Valley has a history of accomplished folk leaving the relatively safe and focused confines of the tech sector to insert themselves into others.
Those of us in the peanut gallery see that more often than not these folks by way of their resources have significant voices and/or roles in areas including education and feminism. It is not always the case that they should have these voices.
Silicon Valley is a community chocked full of the smartest – a universal definition of smart would be helpful here – people in the room. At least that is what we are repeatedly told. Furthermore, they are so smart it only makes sense to for them to branch out into other areas, to bring their smarts to bear on those areas and resolve issues within them, e.g. to change the world.
It is true that in certain areas of ability there are incredibly smart people at work here in the valley. The challenge for these folks however, is to recognize where mastery of subject matter in a space is a pre-requisite to actually solving problems – there are those spaces where there is no problem as we think of them, they are what they are – in those spaces. Many times immersing one’s self in a space for a brief but intense period is not enough. In some cases, considerable time observing over the course of years, and deliberation should occur before jumping into the fray.
In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg, armed with money and good intentions donated 100 million dollars to the Newark, New Jersey school district in the hopes of improving schools there. The outcomes after this announcement are well documented (Russakoff). Similarly, Sandberg with her 2013 book Lean In, and subsequent organization of the same name found herself in the center of a dialogue around feminism as it was relevant both in and out of the workplace. Some from the academy weighed in with their critiques (Hooks) and (Rottenberg).
I mention these examples because education reform and feminism are social issues obvious in their need for improvement; they are also incredibly complex once you look behind their respective curtains. They need more than good intentions, interest in the space, and financial resources. Actual experience, and ability in large system transformation is required.
Then there is the political media space kerfuffle Facebook found itself involved in. In political media there are no simple immutable issues around which to rally. Everything is highly subjective and in the end, it is a space where there is no pleasing anyone.
After his meeting with the conservatives Zuckerberg indicated there would be an investigation. What the hell for ? In that moment, the right had already won or at least already scored before Zuckerberg and Sandberg had even suited up. I have to assume that for an instant the Facebook folks forgot to recognize the fact that their company is a publicly traded one.Surely, the market would reflect its desires for Facebook to become more friendly to the right by way of the stock price no ? Maybe this was a loss of what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”.
To no one’s surprise the investigation that Zuck said would go forward came back and declared there was no bias. Again, Facebook missed the point of this exercise. All the right wanted with this shot across the bow was to draw some attention to their complaint. The conservative right of the last 3o years or so has become quite adept at playing the long game when it comes to media (Lakoff). Furthermore there has been and will always be bias in media. We need to get past thinking all media HAS to be ideologically neutral. In Europe, the Far East, Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world the media and news don’t hide the fact that they have biases. It is the responsibility of the consuming public to account for these biases . Goodness, Zuck has heard of Fox News hasn’t he ?
Just for fun let’s imagine for a moment that we were in the room during the meeting. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are asked directly if there is any bias in how they curate content. Instead of setting the expectation they would twist themselves into knots determining whether there was any, and, to prove a true understanding of real-world media. Both should have visualized Occam’s Razor in their mind’s eye and simply answered yes.
Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In.” The Feminist Wire. N.p., 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 June 2016.
Rottenberg, Catherine. “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.” Cultural Studies 28.3 (2013): 418-37. Print.
Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe, 2005. Print.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg have, to their credit, continued their evolution. Zuckerberg and his wife have started a school in Menlo Park working with educators, we’ll see. Sandberg, after the sudden loss of her husband last year, has begun seeing feminism through the lens of be being a single mother.