How much do we really know about Mark Zuckerberg?
The creator of Facebook. One of the world’s richest men. A 39-year-old father-of-three. But is he a force for good?
One man has made it his mission to try to help us answer that question.
For more than a decade, university professor and privacy expert Dr Michael Zimmer has been recording “every single thing” the Facebook founder says in public, in an archive known as “The Zuckerberg Files”.
Covering a period from 2004 to the present day, it features more than 1,500 transcripts of Zuckerberg’s remarks, including Facebook posts, media interviews and hundreds of videos of his public appearances.
With growing concerns over Facebook users’ privacy and how their data is used, Dr Zimmer says he wanted to take a “closer look” at Zuckerberg’s language and views.
“The privacy concerns around Facebook, and the amount of data Meta collects across its platforms, are real and important for users to understand,” he tells Sky News.
“I don’t rush to suggest people delete their accounts, as there can be real benefits being on the platforms.
“But it’s important for users to explore the privacy settings available to understand how visible their content is, what kind of details are being collected and shared, and so on.
“Facebook has got better at giving users the ability to manage their privacy, but they could certainly do more.”
Zuckerberg’s posts on his Facebook page suggest he has his own concerns about privacy, Dr Zimmer says.
“More recently he’s been posting more about his family, including pictures of his children – but interestingly we rarely see his children’s faces,” Dr Zimmer adds.
“So I’m assuming he wants to make sure his kids’ faces don’t get put online for privacy reasons, or any kind of face recognition, for their own safety.
“But, of course, his platform has built tools to scan our pictures and our faces.”
Twenty years after it was created, Facebook is now irrevocably linked with concerns about data collection, online safety and the deterioration of democracy itself.
Now, a new Sky documentary delves into how Zuckerberg built his Meta empire (which includes Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), what drives him and how he’s changed his public persona over the years.
One of four children and the only boy, Zuckerberg was known as the “prince” by his mother, according to the programme.
“He was anointed even within the family,” says David Kirkpatrick, technology journalist and author of The Facebook Effect. “That shaped his worldview tremendously.”
It was at Harvard University where the “prince” became a celebrity, when he created FaceMash – a hot-or-not website where users compared photos of their fellow students.
“It was sexist, it was juvenile. It did get him in trouble,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
But it almost made him famous. The short-lived FaceMash may have got Zuckerberg hauled before a disciplinary committee, but it also racked up 22,000 hits in its first day.
“By the time he launched Facebook, he was already like a famous innovator so people wanted to know what he was going to do next,” Mr Kirkpatrick adds.
Zuckerberg created the first version of Facebook in his dorm room – and infamously described the early users who trusted him with their data as “dumb f****”, the documentary says.
He left Harvard early with some friends and headed to Palo Alto, California – Silicon Valley – to work on TheFacebook (as it was known) full time.
Zuckerberg was often seen lying on the floor coding, wearing flip-flops.
Poking – an innocuous Facebook function that was popular for a while – was something he thought up when he was drunk, Zuckerberg says in an early interview.
The rise of Facebook was meteoric. It hit one billion users. President Barack Obama visited its headquarters. It was clear that this social media giant had changed the world forever – but for good or for bad?
One of the first examples of the power of Facebook was the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, where countries across the Middle East saw popular uprisings and some governments were overthrown.
“Mark was feted,” says former Facebook vice president Richard Allan.
“Here were all these people in countries like Syria, Tunisia and Egypt who could create their own alternative media, in opposition to a state that controlled the media to within an inch of its life and allowed them no space.
“They created the revolution, not us. We weren’t there on the barricades but we had given them a media tool.”
Facebook had become something that was politically powerful, and everyone from protesters to world leaders knew it.
But as we know now, Zuckerberg’s empire would not always be regarded as a positive force for democracy.
Where early in his career he talked a lot about being a start-up chief and creating Facebook in his dorm room, the questions in interviews got harder.
“Suddenly I think some corporate communication people got involved and his message started to be more controlled, more about products, more about what he’s trying to do with the company,” Dr Zimmer says.
“You almost got a sense that he was trying to sort of step away from the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Facebook, until Cambridge Analytica, until the Brexit and the Trump elections, when suddenly Facebook was back in the spotlight.”
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election made the world stand still.
“Overnight we went from everything we touched turned to gold, to everything we touched turned to dust,” says Katie Harbath, who was Facebook’s public policy director from 2014 to 2019.
“When I first joined, movies were being made (about Facebook), the founder was on the cover of Time Magazine, you’re overthrowing dictators – seven years later you’re being told you destroyed democracy.”
After becoming famous for his laid-back appearance, wearing a hoodie and jeans, Zuckerberg looked very different on 10 April 2018: the day he appeared before the US Congress.
He faced questions over the Cambridge Analytica scandal where it had emerged data belonging to up to 87 million Facebook users was improperly accessed by the political consulting firm, which has since been shut down.
“You could tell it wasn’t something he wanted to do,” Dr Zimmer says of Zuckerberg’s US Congress appearance, noting that he actually did “quite well”.
“I think ever since then he’s been very effective in reshaping what people focus on.”
This includes things like the Metaverse, a virtual environment where people can interact with each other that some in tech think will be a huge part of humanity’s future.
“I think he’s trying to get us to rethink Facebook as a platform for goodness, for happiness, for all these great things in our lives and to forget about the bad things that happen,” Dr Zimmer adds.
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So has Zuckerberg been a force for good?
“I think overall he’s had a good impact,” says Dr Zimmer, who is an expert in privacy and data ethics at Marquette University in the US.
“I think he – and the way he’s run his organisations – has been naive and miscalculating in terms of the broader impact that they have on the world.
“We can look at examples, especially in developing countries, where his platforms have clearly been used and misused in ways that have harmed people.”
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He adds: “I guess he can’t correct those challenges but I think he can own it, and I think he can find ways to really try to engage in that space and help make sure that his impact and his legacy does remain positive.”
In a statement provided to the documentary, Meta denied that it promotes profit over safety, citing changes made to the newsfeed that mean that users spend less time on Facebook.
It said it has introduced new guidance for parents and teenagers on Instagram and says that its own research found that in most cases teenage girls said the platform made them feel better, not worse.
Zuckerberg has said that he wants Congress to update internet regulation around elections so that harmful content, privacy and competition are addressed.
Zuckerberg: King Of The Metaverse is available to watch on Sky Documentaries from Thursday 11 January.