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Mark Zuckerberg wanted Facebook to change the world. And it has — but not for the better.

Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age.
Image: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the annual F8 summit at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California on May 1, 2018.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images file

Let me first state that I actually like Mark Zuckerberg and have since the day I met him more than a dozen years ago.

But let me also say that he and Facebook, the huge social network that he started in college, have been working humanity’s last nerve for far too long now.

Every week, it’s something, and that something is never good.

This week, it was the revelation that the Russians — or, more precisely, a group of geek thugs who are acting the exact same way that a group of Russians acted when they messed with the 2016 United States elections on Facebook — are still skulking around the platform and making trouble for the midterms.

This comes as no surprise to anyone at this point, except for maybe President Donald Trump. I suppose we should be grateful that this time it was Facebook’s management that revealed the news, in a departure from the company’s previous stance of stubbornly resisting pressure from the government and the media to be more transparent. (Over the past months, it has copped to trouble in Brazil, Mexico and Russia, which is a good sign, although a report on Sunday from Britain’s Parliament rebuked the company for being “unwilling or unable to give full answers to the committee’s questions.”)

In a post about the latest disinformation campaign, the company said about security challenges: “We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”

The arms race metaphor is a good one, but not for the reasons Facebook intended. Here’s how I see it: Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age.

All these companies began with a gauzy credo to change the world. But they have done that in ways they did not imagine — by weaponizing pretty much everything that could be weaponized. They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another, and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume.

They have weaponized social media. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.

Which is why malevolent actors continue to game the platforms and why there’s still no real solution in sight anytime soon, because they were built to work exactly this way. And ever since, they have grown like some very pernicious kudzu and overtaken their inventors’ best efforts at control. Simply put, the inventors became overwhelmed by their own creations, which led to what I can only describe as a casual negligence, which led to where we are now.

At a recent employee Q and A I did at YouTube, for example, one staffer told me that their jobs used to be about wrangling cat videos and now they had degenerated into a daily hell of ethics debates about the fate of humanity.

At least Zuckerberg has traveled a long way in admitting the problem and has said more than any other digital C.E.O. that he regrets that he had not taken action sooner.

They have weaponized social media. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.

I certainly did not see it coming, either, when I first met him, in the fall of 2005, although in hindsight the signs that he would get it really wrong were right there in front of me.

He was just a hair over 21, as gangly as you’d imagine he would be, when he slipped quietly into the cramped room at Facebook’s shabby then-headquarters in downtown Palo Alto, Calif.

The start-up was hot, well funded and interesting, but Zuckerberg had already gotten a reputation as arrogant, in part for putting “A Mark Zuckerberg production” on the bottom of the site and for a business card he had that read, “I’m the C.E.O., bitch.”

I was not impressed and had joked to one of his executives that Zuckerberg sounded like a jerk. So, of course, after an awkward hello, the first thing he ever said to me was: “I hear you think I’m an asshole.”

For the record, I never did, including after taking a walk with him around town. Taking walks was (and still is) his odd signature thing; every tech founder has one. (Jeff Bezos: doors for desks and that laugh; Sergey Brin: yoga pants and weird shoes; Elon Musk: so, so many, and all quite inventive.)

On that forced stroll, there was one word that he kept coming back to: Facebook was a “utility.”

It was a curious metaphor to choose, because it was not the effortlessly hip image of his rival back then, Myspace, nor the multicolored everlasting Willy Wonka party that was going on over at Google. It was a dull, blue, helpful, we-keep-the-lights-on-ma’am concept that was, thinking back on it, quite telling.

That’s because it was based in the idea that Facebook was essentially benign. Worse: Zuckerberg stuck with this mix of extreme earnestness and willful naïveté for far too long.

Because what he never managed to grok then was that the company he created was destined to become a template for all of humanity, the digital reflection of masses of people across the globe. Including — and especially — the bad ones.

Was it because he was a computer major who left college early and did not attend enough humanities courses that might have alerted him to the uglier aspects of human nature? Maybe. Or was it because he has since been steeped in the relentless positivity of Silicon Valley, where it is verboten to imagine a bad outcome? Likely. Could it be that while the goal was to “connect people,” he never anticipated that the platform also had to be responsible for those people when they misbehaved? Oh, yes. And, finally, was it that the all-numbers-go-up-and-to-the-right mentality of Facebook blinded him to the shortcuts that get taken in the service of growth? Most definitely.

I kept pressing Zuckerberg on how he personally felt about the damage his creation had done. Was he beginning to understand the power that he held, and that the world that he controlled was not such a rosy place?

These issues were all still on full display in a podcast interview I did with Zuckerberg a few weeks ago. You’d have imagined that all this time, and all the money and power he has collected, would have wisened him.

Not so much. Unfortunately, the conversation soon turned into a late-night freshman-year dorm-room debate, as he stumbled into a controversy of his own making by using Holocaust deniers and their appalling falsehoods as an example of how much dreck should be allowed on the platform.

While that statement ate up all the news, I was more struck by something else. I kept pressing Zuckerberg on how he personally felt about the damage his creation had done. Was he beginning to understand the power that he held, and that the world that he controlled was not such a rosy place?

Facebook was “probably,” he admitted, “too focused on just the positives and not focused enough on some of the negatives.”

Fair enough. But it was impossible to get him to acknowledge any personal pain as both the creator and the destroyer.

Image: Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about the social network site's new localization services called "Places" during a news conference in Palo Alto, California, on Aug. 18, 2010.Tony Avelar / AP file

“I mean, my emotion is feeling a deep sense of responsibility to try to fix the problem,” said Mr. Zuckerberg. “In running a company, if you want to be innovative and advance things forward, I think you have to be willing to get some things wrong. But I don’t think it is acceptable to get the same things wrong over and over again.”

It was a classic Silicon Valley engineer’s roll-up-your-sleeves answer, which leaves many cold when it comes to, say, the manipulation of democracy. Fending off bad actors like the Russians has been and will be increasingly expensive; it may even be impossible. But Facebook could have done much more than it did, and it certainly needs to do more than it’s doing.

Mr. Zuckerberg is now trying to fend off talk in Washington of regulating his company like the thing he once told me it was: a utility. He has also spent the last month meeting over dinners with a range of academic experts on free speech, propaganda and more to try to understand where to go from here.

Call it the education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley, but on the world’s dime. How much that has — and will — cost is probably immeasurable.

Kara Swisher is the Recode editor at large, producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, and a contributor to both The New York Times and NBC News. This article previously appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright 2018 The New York Times.