On Thursday, two men famous for running gigantic platforms that host disinformation and conspiracies talked together on a podcast.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta and the man behind Facebook, and Joe Rogan talked for close to three hours in a wide-ranging conversation on Rogan’s podcast that focused on virtual reality, social media censorship, and the politics of a divided America. In the middle of the conversation, during a moment when the pair were discussing disinformation, Zuckerberg claimed Meta spent $5 billion last year on combating disinformation and other “defensive” work at the company.
“I think we spend $5 billion a year…on all this community integrity work,” he said.
The pair spent much of the first half of the podcast talking up Zuckerberg’s focus on VR and the so-called metaverse; Facebook’s particular corporatized version of which has been roundly criticized and jeered at recently. Zuckerberg’s vision for his metaverse not only seemed fanciful, but hinted troublingly at the picture of a CEO running towards something that seems easier than Facebook’s quagmire of politics and content moderation.
Zuckerberg claimed that VR had a penetration rate “on par with Playstation or Xbox” and imagined a future where people wore their headsets at the coffee shop. He also said that many physical objects in the real world will one day be replaced by holograms. “We could deal hologram cards to each other and we could play poker and you could have a poker night where some of your friends are there and some of them could be holograms,” he said.
Much has been written about Facebook’s pivot to VR and whether it’s a good idea or not, as well as why it was done in the first place. Zuckerberg didn’t offer much substance on this topic, but he heavily implied that running Facebook—with all of the serious, world-impacting decisions around moderation that entails—just isn’t all that fun.
“You wake up in the morning, look at my phone, get like a million messages…it’s usually not good,” Zuckerberg said, in one of the most human moments of the conversation. “It’s almost like everyday you wake up and you’re punched in the stomach.”
Facebook has come to mean so many things to so many different people. It’s a window into the lives of our families, a way to keep up with friends, a place for memes, and also a toxic stew of hate speech, extremism, and bizarre advertisements. Zuckerberg is, ultimately, responsible for it all.
“These are values questions, around what do you value more? Those are super tricky questions. Part of what I’ve struggled with around this is… I didn’t get into this to basically judge those things. I got into this to design technology that helps people connect,” Zuckerberg said.
The metaverse, he explained, fits the bill. “You can probably tell when we spent the first hour talking about the metaverse and the future of building this whole technology roadmap to give people this realistic sense of presence, it’s like, that’s what I’m here to do,” he said.
Unfortunately for Zuckerberg in this regard, the VR metaverse is going to need just as much moderation as Facebook. For example, there have been instances of sexual harassment in Meta’s VR platform, which prompted the company to implement a “personal boundary” zone.
Halfway through the episode, Rogan began to ask questions about disinformation, algorithms, and what he views as Zuckerberg’s responsibility to the world. “It’s such an immense responsibility,” Rogan said. “And the fact that it’s a private company…troubles some people. You have this ability to control the flow of information and that’s never existed before…you’re controlling the signal of three plus billion people. That is so astounding to even say.”
“I don’t exactly look at it the way that you said,” Zuckerberg said. “I view our job as empowering people to express what they want and get the content that they want.” He then explained that any time they’ve tried to exert more control, people notice and run to the competition.
Zuckerberg then dithered and said that the power of the market is what drives Facebook. He also, repeatedly throughout the conversation, said that he didn’t get into this business to make people angry. He wants, he said, to empower people.
Rogan then asked Zuckerberg why the U.S. is so divided, where Zuckerberg again defaulted to deflecting responsibility. “I think there’s probably a media environment issue that predates the internet,” said the man who has made billions of dollars pushing that media into people’s brains. “If some of the news is so far left and some of it is so far right, there’s all this talk of filter bubbles on the internet, but even predating this, going back to the 70s or 80s, when Fox News and these other media organizations were established, that’s had a long term effect and people have studied that.”
He then said that binaries are so prevalent in the U.S. because of the two party system and the open primaries would help smooth things out. “A lot of people want to point to social media as being the primary cause of this, but when you look at how polarization has been rising in the US since before the internet, that makes it very unlikely that social media is the prime mover here,” he said.
Extreme political division in the U.S. absolutely predates social media, but it has accelerated that division. Social scientists, mathematicians, and others have studied the influence of sites like Facebook on the electorate and they’ve all come to the same conclusion: it profits from polarization.
All in all, Zuckerberg’s Rogan appearance was rather tame but painted the picture of someone eager to deflect responsibility; if things keep going the way they are, then Meta’s metaverse is going to have just as many problems as Facebook.