It was not a normal Facebook shareholder meeting.
On Thursday in Menlo Park, California, one investor compared the social network’s poor stewardship of user data to a human rights violation. Another warned that scandal is not good for Facebook’s bottom line. And one advised CEO Mark Zuckerberg to emulate George Washington, not Vladimir Putin, and avoid turning Facebook into a “corporate dictatorship”.
Facebook struggled to keep order, kicking one woman out of the meeting within the first few minutes for repeated interruptions. A plane zipped overhead pulling a banner that read “YOU BROKE DEMOCRACY” and advertising Freedom From Facebook, a group of privacy and anti-monopoly activists that are pressing the US Federal Trade Commission to break up the company.
“A lot has happened since last year when we were here,” Zuckerberg said to open his remarks. It was an understatement, intended to break the ice. One shareholder, Trillium Asset Management, came with a list of 15 distinct controversies, including Russian interference in the US presidential election, the spread of misinformation and concerns over data privacy. Other investors brought up different issues — from Facebook’s tax planning to a reluctance to release reports on pay by gender.
Zuckerberg repeated the same reassurances he used in front of US and European lawmakers earlier this year: the company hasn’t taken a broad enough view of its responsibility. When Facebook built its business, “we didn’t do enough to be proactive about how people can abuse these tools”, he said. Facebook is investing to make the necessary changes to ensure the integrity of elections, reduce the proliferation of fake user accounts, and more, he added.
“We’re also very focused on being more transparent,” Zuckerberg said, touting the fact that the company had just posted its policies on content moderation for the first time.
Surprising no one
Minutes earlier, the company announced that shareholder proposals for more transparency and oversight had failed, surprising no one. Zuckerberg controls the company through special stock that gives him more votes than other shareholders. Facebook said that just because the proposals were blocked, that didn’t mean the company doesn’t care about these issues. Zuckerberg and the board may just have different ideas about how to solve them.
The company answered questions about everything from bias to its impact on the local community. Facebook wants to be seen as a neutral platform for all ideas, Zuckerberg said. The company also wants to be a good neighbour, and is investing in transportation solutions, beyond buses for its workers, to ease traffic around its headquarters.
The last questions came from a shareholder who said his wife used to work in Facebook marketing. Why was the company on the defensive so often? Why was everyone always blaming Facebook?
Zuckerberg said when he sees negative news coverage: “I don’t agree with all of it, but I think some of it is very fair.” — Reported by Sarah Frier, (c) 2018 Bloomberg LP