If there’s ever a moment to capture the existential crisis at Facebook, it was these past couple of weeks.
On Wednesday, the CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Finance, where he faced fierce questioning about Facebook’s role in a range of misdeeds — from ethnic genocide in Myanmar to election meddling.
While Zuckerberg was confronted with his company’s failures, more than 30,000 Oklahoma teachers were rallying at the state Capitol to demand better pay and funding for their state’s struggling schools. It was the teachers’ eighth day on strike. And one of the notable things about the strike is how reliant it has been on Facebook as an organizing tool — a fact that’s true for the teachers strikes in other states.
With Facebook’s public approval at an all-time low, public school teachers are among the few who see the social network’s potential as a catalyst for meaningful change. They credit the platform for helping launch one of the most significant grassroots labor movements in recent years.
“I don’t think [the strikes] would’ve happened without the Facebook groups,” Samantha Freeman, a kindergarten teacher in the Oklahoma City area, told Vox.
Similar Facebook groups have recently helped people who have common cause find each other. The #MeToo gathered momentum on Facebook; sexual assault victims of the former Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar were able to connect via the platform; the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the country through local Facebook groups.
Yet these bright spots don’t negate the reasons the company is under much-warranted scrutiny for its role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, for its handling of user data, and for how it communicated any of these problems to the public. It’s also facing criticism for allowing its platform to be used to organize violence, including in Myanmar, where ethnic cleansing was fanned by the use of Facebook.
The question for Facebook is whether, in the long run, it will be able to overcome its problems to become a platform that can launch successful movements like the ones in Oklahoma and West Virginia, where teachers consider the product essential to their efforts.
The teachers strikes show Facebook’s potential to build communities
In his 2017 manifesto on the future of Facebook, Zuckerberg detailed his ambitious vision for the company:
Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community. ... We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today. In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.
The teachers movement represents a small affirmation of that idealized vision. For the past few months, teachers in several states, from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona, have been mounting massive rallies and strikes to protest stagnant salaries and school budget cuts.
According to the teachers behind these actions, social media — particularly Facebook — has been instrumental in their movement’s explosive growth.
The teachers strike in West Virginia was the spark for this brushfire. Frustration among teachers in the state had been brewing for years, as lawmakers repeatedly slashed business and income taxes and, in turn, cut back benefits and pay for public employees. Labor unions in the state have little influence in state politics, so it wasn’t until two teachers created a private Facebook group in February that the idea of a walkout gained momentum.
“Facebook contributed to a sense of everyone being in it together,” Emily Comer, a teacher who created the private West Virginia Public Employees United Facebook group, told BuzzFeed. Ryan Frankenberry, an organizer with the progressive West Virginia Working Families Party, described it this way:
This strike wouldn’t have happened without the grassroots organization through the private Facebook group. ... The legislative leadership, unions, other organizations, were all helpful. But without question, I don’t think this would have reached the critical mass that was needed had they not had the platform of the group to communicate.
Teachers in other states have been taking after West Virginia’s example. The private Oklahoma Teacher Walkout Facebook group has played a central role in mobilizing teachers. Alberto Morejon, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said the nine-day teachers strike in West Virginia inspired him to create the online group.
The Facebook group has 75,000 members, and teachers are using the platform to spread information about the logistics of their protest, to discuss their demands from state legislators, and to encourage one another not to give up. Some 30,000 Oklahoma teachers rallied at the state Capitol on Monday, and the strike has continued its eighth day Wednesday.
Arizona teachers have also started their own Facebook hub to organize protests and come up with a list of demands to present to state lawmakers. They are now discussing a date for their own walkout.
Not every connection is good connection
In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Zuckerberg admitted that the company did not spend enough time thinking about the potential downside of connecting billions of people across the globe. Zuckerberg said, “There’s no doubt that our responsibility is to amplify the good parts of what people can do when they connect, and to mitigate and prevent the bad things that people might do to try to abuse each other.”
Facebook has failed to prevent many of those bad things. In Myanmar, government forces have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, the country’s Muslim minority group. Anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya memes and propaganda spread through Facebook, inciting violence and eroding support for the Rohingya’s plight. Public-facing accounts of verified government and military leaders — as well as the extremely influential accounts of nationalistic Buddhist monks — included false and inflammatory posts about the Rohingya, the New York Times reported in October.
The Silicon Valley tech giant is also under fire for allowing Russian groups buy political ads on the network to spread inflammatory and divisive messages during the 2016 election. Last month, the backlash intensified when news broke that the Trump-aligned political consulting group Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from millions of Facebook users without their permission.
Each story confirmed how vulnerable the network is to malicious manipulation.
But in the case of the teachers strikes and a few other grassroots movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and #MeToo, the platform has shown that it can enable civic engagement and strengthen communities that were weak or nonexistent. How the company enables more of the latter and stamps out the former will be one of the big challenges it will face in the coming years.
During his testimony Wednesday before the House Committee on Energy and Finance, Zuckerberg seemed aware of that.
“It’s not enough to just connect people; we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice; we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation,” he said.
He then went on to explain some steps the company has taken to make it harder for developers to access user information, and to restrict foreign governments from buying political ads, among other moves.
The big remaining question is whether these steps — and Zuckerberg’s vow to change the company — will be enough to solve the problem.