Mark Zuckerberg suggests Facebook might have helped prevent the war in Iraq
AP Photo/Nick Wass
- Mark Zuckerberg suggested Facebook might have helped prevent the Iraq War if it had been around at the time.
- In a speech on Tuesday, the Facebook CEO also suggested that the debate around Iraq played a part in the origins of Facebook.
- This is a far rosier account of the social network's earlier days than is commonly understood.
- Facebook launched after a young Zuckerberg originally built a site to rate students' attractiveness without their consent. He was subsequently sued over allegations he ripped off a group of students' social media business.
- In the early days, he described his users as "dumb f---s" for trusting him with their data.
Facebook might have been able to help prevent the Iraq War had it existed at the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a high-profile speech that attempted to recast the controversial origins of the social network in a more noble light.
Speaking at Georgetown University on Thursday, the 34-year-old billionaire chief executive gave a 45-minute address in which he laid out his stance on free speech, pushed back against calls for tighter moderation controls on the social network, and criticized China's authoritarian censorship.
But the start of his speech has also drawn attention - because of how Zuckerberg framed early Facebook as being influenced by the Iraq War.
"When I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq. The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives," he said. "I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time."
The suggestion is that had Facebook existed in 2003, when the US decided to invade Iraq, its open platform might have helped debate coalesce and potentially produce a different outcome - and that this debate was instrumental in the birth of Facebook the following year.
This appears to be the first time Zuckerberg has spoken publicly about the Iraq war as an influence on his decision-making - a search of the Zuckerberg Files, an academic repository that tries to save his public remarks, has no previous record of it - but it's possible it has long been a quiet contributor to his thinking.
The established origin story of Facebook is rather murkier.
In 2003, while at Harvard, Zuckerberg created Facemash - a now-notorious website that let users grade students on their comparative attractiveness without their consent. He was hauled before the college Administrate Board, student paper The Harvard Crimson reported in November that year, and the website was taken down.
At the same time, he was recruited to work on HarvardConnection, a planned social network focusing on students at the college. But unbeknownst to its creators he decided to build his own rival service, TheFacebook.com - which would become Facebook as we know it today.
In leaked messages Zuckerberg sent a friend at the time that were published by Business Insider in 2010, Zuckerberg talked about deliberately delaying progress on HarvardConnection, and potentially "f---[ing] ... over [its creators] and quit[ting] on them right before I told them I'd have it done."
When Zuckerberg launched Facebook in February 2004, the HarvardConnection team - twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra - were blindsided, and took Zuckerberg to court over what they viewed as a blatant theft of their idea. Zuckerberg ultimately settled, giving the Winklevosses $65 million in a mixture of cash and stock in 2008.
In those early days, Zuckerberg was seemingly blasé about his users' rights and the material they shared on Facebook. In other leaked messages, he described his social network's users "dumb f---s" for trusting him, and offered to freely share their personal data without their consent. "Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard ... Just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS," he wrote.
Zuckerberg's speech in Thursday mentioned none of this - instead talking more loftily about how the Iraq war apparently influenced his approach to free expression. "Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale," he said.
"When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world's attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice."
This rosy retelling of Facebook's early days prompted a swift backlash online.
Casey Newton, a reporter for The Verge, described it in his popular tech-policy newsletter The Interface as a "major tactical and factual error, in which Zuckerberg attempted to awkwardly retcon the founding of Facebook into a story about giving students a voice during the Iraq war."
He added: "All previous reporting on the subject suggests that the truth was much, much hornier, and the fact that Zuckerberg's speech began so disingenuously caused lots of the folks I read to tune out the rest."
Screenwriter Dan Hernandez joked on Twitter: "Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg, for giving me a website in college where I could express my feelings about the Iraq war, the only intended use for Facebook. To those who used the platform to see if that hot girl across the hall had a boyfriend much better looking than I am, I say shame."
Will Oremus, a reporter for OneZero, also highlighted the disparity between Zuckerberg's unfiltered early messages to friends about Facebook and the picture the CEO presented on stage:
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Today I learned that Mark Zuckerberg founded https://t.co/QuMynqgvTB to stop the Iraq war, bring down dictatorships, and advance civil rights around the world, which you might not have gathered from reading his comments about it at the time. pic.twitter.com/IMWX2HKsX5- Will Oremus (@WillOremus) October 17, 2019