Whether it’s running 365 miles, reading 25 books or learning Mandarin, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg levels up every year when setting new goals for himself.
The latest in what he calls yearly “personal challenges” is somewhat divergent from previous years—it involves him personally connecting with people in every U.S. state by the end of 2017. His hope is to understand how he can help give a voice to different communities around the nation.
For his first-ever visit to North Carolina, Zuckerberg was joined by a crowd of students and faculty at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, for the inaugural Chancellor’s Town Hall. The series was created to bring nationally-known guests to Greensboro for a dialogue about topics important to the university and local community.
The ethos of Zuckerberg’s 2017 challenge fits well with the Town Hall initiative.
“Pushing things forward” was a repeated notion throughout the hour-long discussion. The phrase extended to social justice, workplace inclusivity, diversity of background and viewpoints, and community problem-solving.
It’s a theme that complements NC A&T’s history, which is rooted in minority inclusivity and pioneering social change as one of the largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S. and a leader in granting engineering and agriculture degrees to black students.
In 1960, four freshmen, now historically recognized as “The A&T Four,” sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro to make a statement about the unjust, racial division legislation of the time. Their demonstration was the first of countless “sit-in” events across the country, many held by college students.
Alongside that legacy is an NC A&T alumni base made up of national and global leaders in various fields. They include ACT-1 Group Founder Janice Bryant Howroyd, Joe Dudley, founder of skin and hair care product company Dudley Products and Ronald McNair, a NASA astronaut who unfortunately died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
The NC A&T Town Hall, held on Monday, hosted an invite-only crowd of about 200 students. The event was closed to the press, but a live video feed was casted on Facebook.
Zuckerberg opened the Town Hall with a nod to NC A&T’s influence in fostering knowledge in engineering and science, while building strong community around social justice and having pride in its legacy—as stated in a popular school motto, “Aggie Pride.”
Though each student’s question covered a different topic, almost every answer carried a direct or implied statement as to why Zuckerberg is so attached to an overarching purpose of “building community” in 2017.
Building communities that benefit everyone
The Chancellor’s Town Hall event coincides with a note Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page in February, about developing a social structure within Facebook’s global community that works for everyone. The effort involves tackling ways to build more supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged and inclusive communities.
A student kicked off the town hall with a question in reference to the note, asking Zuckerberg if he plans to include a process of identifying potential threats to progress as he works to cultivate and encourage a better global community.
“Today, the biggest opportunities and problems we face are not just ones that we can solve on a local level or a national level,” Zuckerberg said. “But they’re things we need to come together as a world to solve, things like global warming, pandemic disease or civil war in Syria that creates a refugee crisis across other continents.”
Zuckerberg went on to point out that our current society allows for increased communication and awareness to problems in areas across the globe, which opens a new realm of opportunities for people to become a part of the solution.
“We’re at a point in time now if you’re worried about the direction the world is going, there are communities, media, governments, organizations and nonprofits to help people grow together around the world, not just in smaller communities,” he added.
At Facebook, Zuckerberg wants to figure out what problems the platform’s user base is struggling with, lending him the understanding he needs to ensure Facebook is a vessel that can help communities on a global level.
It’s relevant to note that after the NC A&T Town Hall on Monday, Zuckerberg visited Duke University and the University of North Carolina to gather research for his NCAA bracket. He met with the institutions’ men’s basketball teams, as well as coaches Mike Krzyzewski (nicknamed “Coach K”) of Duke and Roy Williams of UNC.
Zuckerberg later wrote about the visit on his Facebook page, thanking the student athletes for sharing their experience of valuing trust and communication between players, both values he wants to continue to set within his company.
“I’m interested in how sports form the basis for communities,” he writes. “We all need to be part of something bigger than ourselves—whether that’s a team or a community that roots for a team.”
Combating fake news, spam and hoaxes
Facebook took a reputational beating last election cycle after the platform was host to a wealth of deceptive news outlets posing as reputable sources, as well as widely-shared, clickbait-ridden hoax articles.
In the months since then, Zuckerberg has been repeatedly asked about what he’s doing to eradicate misinformation on his platform.
In November, less than two weeks after the election, he posted a statement addressing the issue. He laid out some of the projects his teams were working on to stop fake news, such as tightening its advertising policies to decrease the spread of spam and advancing Facebook’s detection algorithm to better classify false information. Facebook also made it easier for readers to report fake stories.
The A&T Town Hall talk was a rehashing of those points. But plans to disrupt the economics of fake news stood out in the event. Facebook wants to create an environment in which misinformed content can’t get shared, where hoaxes are fought in the same way Facebook fights against spam—by sending content to third party fact-checkers.
Zuckerberg also made a point to respond to a common accusation Facebook has received over the last year that the platform welcomes false information so people will click on it.
“We are really against fake news and misinformation,” he emphasized, adding that he wants people to trust Facebook to serve them with real and helpful content.
But sometimes it’s still difficult to classify.
“A lot of people are calling opinions they disagree with ‘fake news,’” he said. “We want to make sure we get to a place where we aren’t just showing content or banning it from service because people don’t agree with it.”
Polarization of opinions and viewpoints is what leads to these types of situations, he added. That’s why he tries to cultivate a “greater diversity of opinions rather than less” on his platform and in his company.
He provided an example in Peter Thiel, PayPal cofounder, early Facebook investor and current Facebook board member, also an advisor to President Trump.
Zuckerberg, who has spoken out in disagreement of Trump’s policies in the past, said many people voiced their concerns about Thiel’s ties to the Trump administration and asked Facebook execs to remove him as a board member.
But Zuckerberg thinks that slows progress.
“If you want to have a company committed to diversity, you also have to be committed to ideological diversity,” he told the students, adding that Facebook is all about getting different views out among the public, and giving people a voice.
The key is “building tools to give enough common ground [to people], and moving forward together,” he said.
Inclusivity of all aspects, thought and background
Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurial circles lack diversity, noted one student, who followed up with a question about how minorities could strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world to ensure they’re included.
Zuckerberg admitted that there’s a diversity problem in the tech industry, attributing the problem to the tech companies themselves not the minorities working toward equality in the industry.
“That’s on us,” he added, sharing his thoughts on how Facebook and other companies could increase diversity in the tech workforce. One idea is to build specific teams to map out the best candidates from different backgrounds.
Facebook and other tech companies also must fight unconscious bias, a situation in which people aren’t directly aware of inner stereotypical thoughts or discrimination.
“A lot of people who think they’re doing the best are actually doing the worst,” he said. That’s why Facebook trains its managers to best avoid that.
NC A&T’s Student Government Association president started his question with a reference to the debate around HBCUs relevance in today’s society. He asked what Facebook’s role is in that conversation.
Zuckerberg said he’s committed to giving everyone around the world, including in North Carolina, the tools they need to have a voice. He encouraged the audience to share suggestions for how he and Facebook could best serve the discussion.
To a student who asked how Facebook could serve as a tool to combat islamophobia, rather than a vehicle for messages of hate to be spoken and spread, Zuckerberg said one of the most important things Facebook can do is create a space that welcomes open communication and people connecting over shared interests.
He expressed pride for Facebook’s place in promoting interaction between people who come from opposite perspectives, “allowing people to connect as people first, and then talk about specific issues on top of that.”
Implications and uses of live broadcasting on Facebook
Zuckerberg believes Facebook Live is one of the most helpful ways for bystanders and victims to capture and distribute footage of social injustice in a quick, easy and effective way.
“There’s certainly a lot of injustice in the world, and things like body cameras and Facebook Live help give people voice,” he said, referencing the ways Facebook Live is being used to broadcast police brutality and verbal altercations.
These are unique communication methods Facebook didn’t know it would be a part of at first, he said. And there is a negative side.
Live broadcasting events of a more sinister nature, such as crimes and suicides, is an increasing trend on Facebook.
What Zuckerberg takes away from that are ways Facebook can do better inenforcing “community standards,” encouraging people to reach out to community hotlines under crisis or to flag crime-related videos, all in an effort to address a problem early on: “Why didn’t anyone who’s seeing this say something?”
Empowering the electorate to engage in their community
Social media played a significant role in public discourse in the last election. In response to a question about what Facebook is doing to support state and local election cycles, in addition to the national elections, Zuckerberg pointed out its role in getting users registered to vote via the platform.
Zuckerberg hopes to build on that project going forward by helping people connect to all sorts of local candidates and officials, and providing location-based lists of community and state representatives and officials.
Part of that responsibility is encouraging people to not only go to the ballot box every four years, but to also stay engaged on civic issues.
“There’s a big opportunity to help keep people engaged between the elections and making sure people have the information they need for all elections,” he said.
The final question was from a former Facebook intern, who asked whether or not Zuckerberg has aspirations to run for office.
His answer circled back to his main point; he hopes Facebook offers the technology and tools to empower people to build communities locally and around the world, and to grow “a tighter social fabric” within them.
For him, running Facebook is a responsibility and opportunity to make change and progress in the world he cares about.