By Michael Marder, IKERBASQUE Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and 15 books, and contributor to the LA Review of Books, The Guardian, New York Times, El Pais, and other international publications.
Just as previous wars on poverty, drugs & terrorism, a new ‘war on COVID-19’ is doomed to failure if a similar militaristic approach is used. We can only win if we restore the common good ruined by decades of neoliberal policies.
When speaking about the current coronavirus pandemic and a concerted response to it, we should say unequivocally: “This is not a war.” It’s true that this will directly contradict the stance of many world leaders, who have declared a war on the virus. But by denying the necessity of a militaristic framing, we don’t turn a blind eye to how critical the situation is. On the contrary, this will help to search for an alternative way of grappling with the coronavirus crisis, of inspiring people for collective and individual action, and – ultimately – of bringing about a better world after the current pandemic winds down.
Modern western medicine is prone to indulge in militaristically inflected discourses and actions. We say that someone “fights an illness,” that the deceased has “lost a battle” with a lethal affliction, that tumors may be “aggressive” and that, therefore, they should be “aggressively attacked” with chemotherapy. This way of conceptualizing and practicing medicine lends itself easily to a “war on the virus.”
Prehistory of ‘the war on the virus’
Since the 1960s, governments around the world (beginning with the United States) have been extending the discourse of war beyond the context of military hostilities traditionally understood. In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson announced the start of a “war on poverty” as he attempted to lay the foundations for a welfare state. In 1971, President Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and declared a “war on drugs.” In 2001, President George W. Bush sounded his call for a global “war on terror” in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The 2020 ‘war’ on the coronavirus should be seen in the context of these declarations.
With each new declaration, the presumed enemy became more and more invisible, lacking recognizable outlines. It — rather than she or he — could be just about anywhere. With the enemy not easily localizable and potentially ever-present, war became total, engulfing all reality.
The logic of war
The invisible enemy that figures in a war on the coronavirus totalizes war by erasing a clear front line. While the line is erased, the front does not disappear: it is drawn between each of us and even within each of us, given the uncertainty of whether or not one is infected with the coronavirus.
Another element of war that becomes distorted under present circumstances is the real possibility of killing and being killed. Neither the virus itself, nor those it infects, have the intention of killing anyone. So, in a war paradigm, the role of the virus is ambiguous: Is it an enemy or a weapon? Is a potentially infected human body the virus’s weapon, or itself an enemy? Leaders who fall back on militaristic metaphors have the responsibility of thinking through their logic and consequences.
In wars extended beyond the sphere of armed conflicts between human communities, victory is unattainable. So is defeat. Not only do wars on drugs, terror, and now a virus become all-encompassing; not only do they erase the front line and a discernible enemy figure, but they also have no end in sight, no definite cessation of hostilities. An inflated concept of war runs the risk of becoming a fight for a cause lost from the get-go.
Assuming that one could declare one’s victory or admit to being defeated in such wars, what would the peacetime that follows look like? In fact, peace is not at all contemplated in hostilities against terror or a virus. The maximalist objective they have is the complete elimination of the enemy, its total annihilation. These are wars without peace and, therefore, without the end that would limit them, in time or in conceptual space.
Destruction of the common good
After decades of neoliberal policies that have resulted in the privatization of utility companies and pension funds, erosion of workers’ rights, divestment from public healthcare and other vital sectors and services, the experience and the notion of the common good have been rendered hollow. As a result, appeals to a population to act for the common good will fall on deaf ears and will not produce the same desired, emotionally charged effects as a declaration of war, implying the need to mobilize, to combine individual efforts and to make sacrifices.
A unique opportunity
Terrifying and tragic as it is, the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique opportunity — to rebuild a sense of common good, and breathe new meaning into it, grounded on experience.
We would need to concentrate on the small acts of kindness and solidarity all around us. That includes people offering older neighbors help with buying food, provisions or medicines, caring about the most vulnerable. That is not to mention the enormous risks that medical personnel take in treating people who have contracted the virus. Combined with some government actions, such as abolishing the difference between public and private healthcare systems, these experiences may reinvigorate the notion of the common good.
If an appeal to the common good were to make sense again, if it were to guide our behavior in a state of crisis, then it would be significantly more effective in overcoming an emergency situation than the frames of war that are again being thrust upon us.
This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.
March 20, 2020 by Yuval Noah Harari
Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world. Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times. In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.
In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.
About the photography
The images accompanying this article are taken from webcams overlooking the deserted streets of Italy, found and manipulated by Graziano Panfili, a photographer living under lockdown This kind of technology is not limited to east Asia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently authorised the Israel Security Agency to deploy surveillance technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients. When the relevant parliamentary subcommittee refused to authorise the measure, Netanyahu rammed it through with an “emergency decree”. You might argue that there is nothing new about all this. In recent years both governments and corporations have been using ever more sophisticated technologies to track, monitor and manipulate people. Yet if we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance. Not only because it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from “over the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance. Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.
The emergency pudding
One of the problems we face in working out where we stand on surveillance is that none of us know exactly how we are being surveilled, and what the coming years might bring. Surveillance technology is developing at breakneck speed, and what seemed science-fiction 10 years ago is today old news. As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is hoarded and analysed by government algorithms. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within days. Sounds wonderful, right? The downside is, of course, that this would give legitimacy to a terrifying new surveillance system. If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry. It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.
You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon. My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to special regulations for making pudding (I kid you not). The War of Independence has long been won, but Israel never declared the emergency over, and has failed to abolish many of the “temporary” measures of 1948 (the emergency pudding decree was mercifully abolished in 2011). Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.
The soap police
Asking people to choose between privacy and health is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because this is a false choice. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public. Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population. Consider, for example, washing your hands with soap. This has been one of the greatest advances ever in human hygiene. This simple action saves millions of lives every year. While we take it for granted, it was only in the 19th century that scientists discovered the importance of washing hands with soap. Previously, even doctors and nurses proceeded from one surgical operation to the next without washing their hands. Today billions of people daily wash their hands, not because they are afraid of the soap police, but rather because they understand the facts. I wash my hands with soap because I have heard of viruses and bacteria, I understand that these tiny organisms cause diseases, and I know that soap can remove them.
But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media. Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you just cannot trust the public to do the right thing. Normally, trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt overnight. But these are not normal times. In a moment of crisis, minds too can change quickly. You can have bitter arguments with your siblings for years, but when some emergency occurs, you suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and you rush to help one another. Instead of building a surveillance regime, it is not too late to rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. We should definitely make use of new technologies too, but these technologies should empower citizens. I am all in favour of monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data should not be used to create an all-powerful government. Rather, that data should enable me to make more informed personal choices, and also to hold government accountable for its decisions. If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic. Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments. The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.
We need a global plan
The second important choice we confront is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation. First and foremost, in order to defeat the virus we need to share information globally. That’s the big advantage of humans over viruses. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the US many valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it. What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might well save lives in Tehran by evening. When the UK government hesitates between several policies, it can get advice from the Koreans who have already faced a similar dilemma a month ago. But for this to happen, we need a spirit of global co-operation and trust. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians Countries should be willing to share information openly and humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the insights they receive. We also need a global effort to produce and distribute medical equipment, most notably testing kits and respiratory machines. Instead of every country trying to do it locally and hoarding whatever equipment it can get, a co-ordinated global effort could greatly accelerate production and make sure life-saving equipment is distributed more fairly. Just as countries nationalise key industries during a war, the human war against coronavirus may require us to “humanise” the crucial production lines. A rich country with few coronavirus cases should be willing to send precious equipment to a poorer country with many cases, trusting that if and when it subsequently needs help, other countries will come to its assistance. We might consider a similar global effort to pool medical personnel. Countries currently less affected could send medical staff to the worst-hit regions of the world, both in order to help them in their hour of need, and in order to gain valuable experience. If later on the focus of the epidemic shifts, help could start flowing in the opposite direction. Global co-operation is vitally needed on the economic front too. Given the global nature of the economy and of supply chains, if each government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis. We need a global plan of action, and we need it fast. Another requirement is reaching a global agreement on travel. Suspending all international travel for months will cause tremendous hardships, and hamper the war against coronavirus. Countries need to co-operate in order to allow at least a trickle of essential travellers to continue crossing borders: scientists, doctors, journalists, politicians, businesspeople. This can be done by reaching a global agreement on the pre-screening of travellers by their home country. If you know that only carefully screened travellers were allowed on a plane, you would be more willing to accept them into your country.
Unfortunately, at present countries hardly do any of these things. A collective paralysis has gripped the international community. There seem to be no adults in the room. One would have expected to see already weeks ago an emergency meeting of global leaders to come up with a common plan of action. The G7 leaders managed to organise a videoconference only this week, and it did not result in any such plan. In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity. This administration has abandoned even its closest allies. When it banned all travel from the EU, it didn’t bother to give the EU so much as an advance notice — let alone consult with the EU about that drastic measure. It has scandalised Germany by allegedly offering $1bn to a German pharmaceutical company to buy monopoly rights to a new Covid-19 vaccine. Even if the current administration eventually changes tack and comes up with a global plan of action, few would follow a leader who never takes responsibility, who never admits mistakes, and who routinely takes all the credit for himself while leaving all the blame to others. If the void left by the US isn’t filled by other countries, not only will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy will continue to poison international relations for years to come. Yet every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity. Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.
Yuval Noah Harari is author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’.
CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations Dr Richard Hatchett explains the long-term dangers of the Covid-19 coronavirus – saying it’s the scariest outbreak he’s dealt with in his 20-year career.
In 2014, the world avoided a horrific global outbreak of Ebola, thanks to thousands of selfless health workers — plus, frankly, thanks to some very good luck. In hindsight, we know what we should have done better. So, now’s the time, Bill Gates suggests, to put all our good ideas into practice, from scenario planning to vaccine research to health worker training. As he says, “There’s no need to panic … but we need to get going.”
I count BREXIT as a national and international catastrophe. And I take it very personally. I have always been a deeply patriotic person, lucky beyond measure to come from a country that had moved beyond Empire and that, for all its failings, endeavoured to become a place that stood for decency and common sense, fought racism and that treasured its democracy built on robust and fair discussion. I love the Royal Navy, the NHS and the BBC. I love my people’s extraordinary inventiveness and the sharp flowering of my native tongue – the English language is fiercely mongrel and built for wit and laughter tempered with insight and tears. I love England and the UK with a passion.
And so I see BREXIT day today as my generation’s Dunkirk. We have allowed our place at the heart of Europe to be sullied by the most pathetic and inward-looking version of ourselves. I am in grief, for Europe, for Britain too. I demonstrated outside parliament, With a naivety that belies my age I thought if I wrote just one letter more I could turn the tide of this madness. But it was not to be.
If I had to choose between the two I would choose Europe. It is the future to work and live and love together. Quite a number of my wider family died in the NAZI death camps and my uncle bombed Dresden – a war crime in itself – to liberate part of Europe from itself. This must never happen again. Ever. And therein lies the heart of the EU, that we through the force of our collective will make this continent a home for all of us. What a bitter, bitter day this is.
Impostors, trademarks, commercial interests, royalties and foundation…
First: Unfortunately there are still people who are trying to impersonate me or falsely claim that they “represent” me in order to communicate with high profile people, politicians, media, artists etc. Please be aware that this is happening and be extremely suspicious if you are contacted by ”me” or someone saying they ”represent” me. I apologize to anyone who has been contacted – and even misled – by this kind of behavior.
Second: My name and the #FridaysForFuture movement are constantly being used for commercial purposes without any consent whatsoever. It happens for instance in marketing, selling of products and people collecting money in my and the movement’s name. That is why I’ve applied to register my name, Fridays For Future, Skolstrejk för klimatet etc as trademarks. This action is to protect the movement and its activities. It is also needed to enable my pro bono legal help to take necessary action against people or corporations etc who are trying to use me and the movement in purposes not in line with what the movement stands for. I assure you, I and the other school strikers have absolutely no interests in trademarks. But unfortunately it needs to be done.
Fridays For Future is a global movement founded by me. It belongs to anyone taking part in it, above all the young people. It can – and must – not be used for individual or commercial purposes.
And third: together with my family I’m setting up a foundation. It’s already registered and existing, but it not is not yet up and running. This is strictly nonprofit of course and there are no interests in philanthropy. It is just something that is needed for handling money (book royalties, donations, prize money etc) in a completely transparent way. For instance, taxes have to be paid before we can give them away to specified purposes and charities. This takes a lot of time and work, and when the foundation is fully up and running I will tell you more. The foundation’s aim will be to promote ecological, climatic and social sustainability as well as mental health.
Shot in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris, where the Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood SS20 show took place, the Vivienne Westwood Spring/Summer 2020 campaign, features Model & Activist Naomi Campbell: ‘I believe things in life come along when they are meant to. It’s taken 33 years to do a Westwood Campaign and I’m so happy to be doing it in my 49th year. Its meant to be when its meant to be…’
Vivienne Westwood & Andreas Kronthaler also feature alongside Naomi in the campaign, shot against a neon lit white space and on the backstreets of Paris.
‘When I design clothes they always have to have a story and when somebody shoots me in our clothes I always have to have that story in my mind. I’ve been reading Mythology – for this it was like we were on our way to paradise and we were all going to change from fish into birds… ‘
Every new year of the last decade I set a personal challenge. My goal was to grow in new ways outside my day-to-day work running Facebook. These led me to learn Mandarin, code an AI assistant for my home, read more books, run a lot more, learn to hunt and cook, and get more comfortable with public speaking.
When I started these challenges, my life was almost all about building the Facebook website. (It was mostly a website at the time.) Now there’s so much more to learn from. At Facebook, we’re building lots of different apps and technology — ranging from a new private social platform to augmented and virtual reality — and we’re handling a lot more social responsibility. And outside Facebook, I’m a father now and I love spending time with my family, working on our philanthropy, and improving at the sports and hobbies I’ve picked up over the years. So while I’m glad I did annual challenges over the last decade, it’s time to do something different.
This decade I’m going to take a longer term focus. Rather than having year-to-year challenges, I’ve tried to think about what I hope the world and my life will look in 2030 so I can make sure I’m focusing on those things. By then, if things go well, my daughter Max will be in high school, we’ll have the technology to feel truly present with another person no matter where they are, and scientific research will have helped cure and prevent enough diseases to extend our average life expectancy by another 2.5 years. Here are some of the things that I think will be important in the next decade:
When I started Facebook, one of the reasons I cared about giving people a voice was that I thought it would empower my generation — which I felt had important things to say and weren’t being listened to enough. It turned out it wasn’t just my generation that felt marginalized and needed more voice though, and these tools have given power to lots of different groups across society. I’m glad more people have voice, but it hasn’t yet brought about the generational change in addressing important issues I had hoped for. I think that will happen this decade.
Today, many important institutions in our society still aren’t doing enough to address the issues younger generations face — from climate change to runaway costs of education, housing and healthcare. But as millennials and more members of younger generations can vote, I expect this to start changing rapidly. By the end of this decade, I expect more institutions will be run by millennials and more policies will be set to address these problems with longer term outlooks.
In many ways, Facebook is a millennial company with the issues of this generation in mind. At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, our focus is on very long term efforts that will primarily help our children’s generation, like investing in curing, preventing and managing all diseases in our children’s lifetimes, or making primary education more personalized to students needs. Over the next decade, we’ll focus more on funding and giving a platform to younger entrepreneurs, scientists, and leaders to enable these changes.
A New Private Social Platform
The internet gave us the superpower of being able to connect with anyone, anywhere. This is incredibly empowering and means that our relationships and opportunities are no longer confined to just where we live. We’re now part of a community with billions of people in it — with all the dynamism, culture and economic opportunity that brings.
But being part of such a large community creates its own challenges and makes us crave intimacy. When I grew up in a small town, it was easy to have a niche and sense of purpose. But with billions of people, it’s harder to find your unique role. For the next decade, some of the most important social infrastructure will help us reconstruct all kinds of smaller communities to give us that sense of intimacy again.
This is one of the areas of innovation I’m most excited about. Our digital social environments will feel very different over the next 5+ years, re-emphasizing private interactions and helping us build the smaller communities we all need in our lives.
In the last decade, the fastest growth in the economy has been in the tech industry. In the next decade, I expect technology will continue to create opportunity, but more through enabling all of the other parts of the economy to make better use of technology and grow even faster.
The area we’re most focused on is helping small businesses. Across our services, more than 140 million small businesses already reach customers — mostly for free. Today this takes the form of an entrepreneur setting up an account on Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, and then either communicating with people for free or buying ads to get their message out more broadly. Over the next decade, we hope to build the commerce and payments tools so that every small business has easy access to the same technology that previously only big companies have had.
If we can make it so anyone can sell products through a storefront on Instagram, message and support their customers through Messenger, or send money home to another country instantly and at low cost through WhatsApp — that will go a long way towards creating more opportunity around the world. At the end of the day, a strong and stable economy comes from people succeeding broadly, and the best way to do that is to make it so small businesses can effectively become technology companies.
The Next Computing Platform
The technology platform of the 2010s was the mobile phone. The platform of the 2000s before that was about the web, and the 1990s was the desktop computer. Each computing platform becomes more ubiquitously accessible and natural for us to interact with. While I expect phones to still be our primary devices through most of this decade, at some point in the 2020s, we will get breakthrough augmented reality glasses that will redefine our relationship with technology.
Augmented and virtual reality are about delivering a sense of presence — the feeling that you’re right there with another person or in another place. Instead of having devices that take us away from the people around us, the next platform will help us be more present with each other and will help the technology get out of the way. Even though some of the early devices seem clunky, I think these will be the most human and social technology platforms anyone has built yet.
The ability to be “present” anywhere will also help us address some of the biggest social issues of our day — like ballooning housing costs and inequality of opportunity by geography. Today, many people feel like they have to move to cities because that’s where the jobs are. But there isn’t enough housing in many cities, so housing costs are skyrocketing while quality of living is decreasing. Imagine if you could live anywhere you chose and access any job anywhere else. If we deliver on what we’re building, this should be much closer to reality by 2030.
New Forms of Governance
One of the big questions for the next decade is: how should we govern the large new digital communities that the internet has enabled? Platforms like Facebook have to make tradeoffs on social values we all hold dear — like between free expression and safety, or between privacy and law enforcement, or between creating open systems and locking down data and access. It’s rare that there’s ever a clear “right” answer, and in many cases it’s as important that the decisions are made in a way that feels legitimate to the community. From this perspective, I don’t think private companies should be making so many important decisions that touch on fundamental democratic values.
One way to address this is through regulation. As long as our governments are seen as legitimate, rules established through a democratic process could add more legitimacy and trust than rules defined by companies alone. There are a number of areas where I believe governments establishing clearer rules would be helpful, including around elections, harmful content, privacy, and data portability. I’ve called for new regulation in these areas and over the next decade I hope we get clearer rules for the internet.
Another and perhaps even better way to address this is by establishing new ways for communities to govern themselves. An example of independent governance is the Oversight Board we’re creating. Soon you’ll be able to appeal content decisions you disagree with to an independent board that will have the final decision in whether something is allowed. This decade, I hope to use my position to establish more community governance and more institutions like this. If this is successful, it could be a model for other online communities in the future.
We’ve got a lot to do this decade and there’s a lot to learn to help make this all happen. I hope your new year and new decade are off to a good start. Here’s to a great 2020s.
We just shared our community update and quarterly results. Here’s what I said on our earnings call.
Before we get started, I want to talk about the announcement we just shared that Sue Desmond-Hellmann is leaving our board to focus on her health and other commitments. Sue has been a wonderful and thoughtful voice on our board for six years, and I’m deeply personally grateful for everything she has done for this company.
This was a good quarter for our community and our business. There are now around 2.8 billion people using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month, and around 2.2 billion people using at least one of our services daily. The Facebook app had a particularly strong quarter, including in the US and Canada. We also recently released that we estimate that more than 140 million businesses, mostly small businesses, are using our services each month to grow, create jobs and become social hubs in their communities.
This has been a busy quarter on a lot of fronts.
We’ve launched a number of new exciting products, like Facebook Dating in the US, which is doing quite well, Threads for Instagram, a camera-first experience to share with your close friends, Facebook News, our dedicated product for news that we’ve built in partnership with news publishers, and we introduced Horizon, a new social experience for VR. We also released hand-tracking technology for Oculus and Oculus Link so your Quest is basically now a Rift too. We’re making progress building out the private social platform across WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram Direct. And we have multiple exciting initiatives around commerce and payments that are moving forward, from Marketplace to Instagram Shopping to payments in WhatsApp and continuing our discussions on Libra.
This has also been a busy quarter on the policy and social issues front. We formally entered into a settlement with the FTC to make structural changes and build a rigorous privacy program that will set a new standard for our industry. We’re about a year out now from the 2020 elections and we just announced that the systems we’ve built are now so advanced that we’ve proactively identified and removed multiple foreign interference campaigns coming from Russia and Iran. And we’ve found ourselves in the middle of the debate about what political speech is acceptable in the upcoming campaigns.
But today I want to focus on talking about principles. Because from a business perspective, it might be easier for us to choose a different path than the one we’re taking. So I want to make sure everyone is clear about what we stand for, and why we’re making some of the decisions we’re making.
I gave a speech a couple weeks ago about the importance of standing for voice and free expression. I believe strongly — and I believe that history supports — that free expression has been important for driving progress and building more inclusive societies around the world, that at times of social tension there has often been urge to pull back on free expression, and that we will be best served over the long term by resisting this urge and defending free expression.
Today is certainly a historical moment of social tension, and I view an important role of our company as defending free expression.
Now this has never been absolute and of course we take our responsibility to prevent harm very seriously too. I think we invest more in getting harmful content off our services than any other company in the world. Those who follow us closely know that we have more than 35,000 people working on safety and security, and that our budget for this work is billions of dollars a year — more than the whole revenue of our company at the time of our IPO earlier this decade. And we’re going to keep on investing more here. But while we work hard to remove content that can cause real danger, I think we also need to be careful about adopting more and more rules that restrict the way that people can speak and what they can say.
Right now, the content debate is about political ads. Should we block political ads with false statements? Should we block all political ads? Google, YouTube and most internet platforms run these same ads, most cable networks run these same ads, and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations. I think there are good reasons for this. In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news. And although I’ve considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so, on balance so far I’ve thought we should continue. Ads can be an important part of voice — especially for candidates and advocacy groups the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates. And it’s hard to define where to draw the line. Would we really block ads for important political issues like climate change or women’s empowerment? Instead, I believe the better approach is to work to increase transparency. Ads on Facebook are already more transparent than anywhere else. We have a political ads archive so anyone can scrutinize every ad that’s run — you can see every message, who saw it, how much was spent — something that no TV or print media does.
Since this is an earnings call, I want to talk about the business impact of all this.
Some people accuse us of allowing this speech because they think all we care about is making money. That’s wrong. I can assure you, from a business perspective, the controversy this creates far outweighs the very small percent of our business that these political ads make up. We estimate these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year. That’s not why we’re doing this. To put this in perspective, the FTC fine that these same critics said wouldn’t be enough to change our incentives was more than 10x bigger than this. The reality is that we believe deeply that political speech is important and should be able to be heard, and that’s what’s driving us.
Other people say this policy is a part of a broader pattern of us building a system that incentivizes inflammatory content to fuel our business. Again, to the contrary, I think we’ve done more than any of the other major internet platforms to try to build positive incentives into our systems. We don’t let any of our News Feed or Instagram Feed teams set goals around increasing time spent on our services. We rank feeds to encourage meaningful social interactions — helping people connect with friends, family and their communities. We have real people come in and tell us what content they saw that was most meaningful to them and sparked valuable discussions, and then we build systems to try to surface that kind of content. We’ve taken many steps over the years to fight clickbait and polarization, and now we’re even testing removing like counts in Instagram and Facebook. We do this because we know that if we help people have meaningful interactions, they’ll find our services more valuable and that’s the key to building something sustainable and growing over time.
Last year, you probably remember we made a series of changes that emphasized friends and family and reduced time spent on our services. One change removed 50 million hours of viral video watching a day. We did this knowing it would mean people spend a lot less time on our apps — which is not what you do if you’re just prioritizing engagement over everything else. I take getting these incentives right very seriously and we’re willing to make huge sacrifices in the short term to do what we think is right and will be better over time.
Finally, some people say this is just all a cynical political calculation and that we’re acting in a way we don’t believe because we’re just trying to appease conservatives. That’s wrong too. We face a lot of criticism from both progressives and conservatives. Frankly, if our goal were trying to make either side happy, then we’re not doing a very good job because I’m pretty sure everyone is frustrated with us. Our values on voice and free expression are not partisan. But unfortunately, in our current environment, a lot of people look at every decision through the lens of whether it’s going to help or hurt the candidate they want in winning their next election.
A lot of people have told us: you’ve got to pick a side, or else both sides are going to cause a lot of problems for you. Sadly, from a practical perspective, they may be right. But we can’t make decisions that way. Over the next year of campaigns, we’re going to be at the center of the debate anytime there’s content or policies on any of our services that people believe could advantage or disadvantage their side. This may lead to more investigations, and the candidates are going to criticize us.
I expect that this is going to be a very tough year. We try to do what we think is right, but we’re not going to get everything right. This is complex stuff and anyone who says the answers are simple hasn’t thought long enough about all the nuances and downstream challenges.
I get that some people will disagree with our decisions. I get that some people will think our decisions may have a negative impact on things they really care about. But I don’t think anyone can say we’re not doing what we believe, or that we haven’t thought hard about these issues.
I could be wrong, but my experience running this company so far has been that if we do what we believe is right, even when it’s unpopular for years at a time — then eventually it has worked out best for our community and for our business too.
There’s a lot at stake here. We are at a cross-roads not only in our own country, but in the future of the global internet as well. China is building its own internet and media ecosystem that’s focused on very different values. As these systems compete, the question of which nation’s values will determine what speech is allowed for decades to come really puts into perspective the issues we face today. Because while we may disagree on exactly where to draw the line on specific issues, we at least can disagree. That’s what free expression is about.
Voice and expression have been important for progress throughout history. They’ve been important in the fight for democracy worldwide. And I believe that voice and free expression are an important part of the path forward today, and that’s why our company will continue standing for these principles.
As always, I am grateful for all of your support in everything that we do — and that’s especially true today. In addition to these challenges, there are a lot of great things going on that I’m incredibly proud of and excited about, and I’m glad that our community and business trends continue heading in a good direction.
One of the most important projects I’ve worked on over the past couple of years is establishing an independent Oversight Board that our community can appeal to on some of the hardest questions about what content is allowed on our services. Today we’re publishing the board’s charter which articulates how it will operate and uphold its duty to protect free expression for our community. Below is a letter I wrote to go along with the charter and discuss why I think this is important.
Facebook is built to give people a voice. Free expression is fundamental to who we are as a company, just as it is to a free, inclusive and democratic society. We believe the more people who have the power to express themselves, the more progress our society makes together. We want to make sure our products and policies support this.
We also recognize that there are times when people use their voice to endanger others. That’s why we have Community Standards to articulate what is and isn’t allowed on our platforms. When we enforce these policies, we follow a set of values — authenticity, safety, privacy, and dignity — guided by international human rights standards. Our commitment to free expression is paramount, but we still need to keep people safe and take down harmful content.
We are responsible for enforcing our policies every day and we make millions of content decisions every week. But ultimately I don’t believe private companies like ours should be making so many important decisions about speech on our own. That’s why I’ve called for governments to set clearer standards around harmful content. It’s also why we’re now giving people a way to appeal our content decisions by establishing the independent Oversight Board.
If someone disagrees with a decision we’ve made, they can appeal to us first, and soon they will be able to further appeal to this independent board. The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it. The board will use our values to inform its decisions and explain its reasoning openly and in a way that protects people’s privacy.
The board will be an advocate for our community — supporting people’s right to free expression, and making sure we fulfill our responsibility to keep people safe. As an independent organization, we hope it gives people confidence that their views will be heard, and that Facebook doesn’t have the ultimate power over their expression. Just as our Board of Directors keeps Facebook accountable to our shareholders, we believe the Oversight Board can do the same for our community.
Over the past year, we’ve gotten feedback from experts around the world on what this board should look like. We’ve researched similar bodies, released a draft charter, run a public consultation process, engaged in workshops and published a summary of the feedback. This charter reflects much of what we’ve heard, and it gives answers to some of the biggest questions we’ve been considering: How should board members be selected? How do we protect their independence from Facebook but also make sure they’re committed to our principles? How do people petition the board? How does the board decide which cases to hear?
In this charter, Facebook is making several commitments to the board. We’re committing to implement the board’s content decisions and taking action regarding its advisory opinions on our policies. We’re committing to preserving and protecting the board’s ability to exercise its independent judgement. And we’re committing to providing the board with the information and resources it needs to make informed decisions.
This charter brings us another step closer to establishing the board, but there is a lot of work still ahead. We expect the board will only hear a small number of cases at first, but over time we hope it will expand its scope and potentially include more companies across the industry as well.
Building institutions that protect free expression and online communities is important for the future of the internet. I’m looking forward to seeing how the board evolves. Thank you to everyone who has given their time, effort and energy to this project to help get it right.