September 18, 2021

TechScape: Facebook’s biggest problem? Mark Zuckerberg | Technology

What makes Facebook Facebook? I’m not talking about the technology here, or the app, but the company itself: why is Facebook so scandal-prone, so controversial, and so aggressive? That was the question I had going in to An Ugly Truth, a new book from the New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang.

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Covering a company like Facebook as a tech reporter, it’s often easy to lose the forest for the trees. With each new scandal, the previous one recedes into memory, or becomes a bullet-point on a list of wrongs. Frenkel and Kang, in the great tradition of American journalistic non-fiction, have spent thousands of hours interviewing hundreds of people who were at or involved with the company from 2009 onwards, and the result is more than the sum of its parts.

Yes, there are interesting nuggets. The pair say, for instance, that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice-president of Global Public Policy, interviewed with the Trump transition team in 2016 for the position of director of the office of management and budget. Kaplan voluntarily withdrew from the process before a decision was made, but two years later his closeness to the Republican establishment again caused problems for Facebook when he was pictured prominently supporting then-nominee supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh, at the hearings convened to consider allegations that the latter was involved in a sexual assault some years previously. Facebook’s rank-and-file staff were reportedly outraged, particularly when a check of Kaplan’s calendar revealed he was there on company time, having failed to book a day of leave.

Similarly, the book’s standout chapter is a blow-by-blow account of how Facebook flubbed the response to Russian activity on its platform. The protagonist is Alex Stamos, a fiery information security executive hired by Facebook from Yahoo just a year previously to revitalise the company’s reputation in the field. The book details how Facebook, through Stamos’s team, was on the cutting edge of research into the activities of Russian state-sponsored hackers on the platform – but at every point, political considerations stymied attempts to do anything about it. In April 2017, a report from his team had attempted to disclose concrete examples of how accounts linked to Russian security services had collected intelligence on Facebook users and then spread hacked documents across the platform. But the published version contained nothing of the sort:

Facebook could not risk going public with its conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 elections, Stamos was told. The management team considered it politically unwise to be the first tech company to confirm what US intelligence agencies had discovered. “They didn’t want to stick their heads out,” said one person involved in the discussions.

Other considerations were a different sort of political. Stamos reported in, not to Mark Zuckerberg, nor even Sheryl Sandberg, but to Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel. But the power at Facebook lies with the product teams: Zuckerberg’s star lieutenants like Chris Cox and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth could perhaps have done something sooner, if they hadn’t been siloed off in a different part of the building.

But aside from the revelations, the value for me lay as much in seeing the last decade-plus of scandals, back-to-back, with enough extra detail to start drawing the connective lines together.

The conclusion I came to isn’t exactly thrilling: Facebook is what it is because of Mark Zuckerberg.

I know, who’d have thought that the unsackable guy who controls Facebook might perhaps have had an influence on how it became the company it is today? But in this, I differ slightly from the conclusion Kang and Frenkel draw. They argue that Facebook’s core problem is capitalism: that the company’s neutral – or perhaps even positive – mission to “connect the world” can only end badly thanks to its unstated addendum, “… and profit from doing so.” But I’m not so sure.

Every company has a profit motive, but few of them have quite the same energy that Facebook exudes. For me, the most telling anecdote in the book is one I vividly remember seeing from the outside: the moment Zuckerberg decided, unprompted, to use his first major interview in six years to defend Holocaust denial. “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down,” he said, “because I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

I cannot emphasise how weird this was to see from the outside. Holocaust denial on Facebook was not a hot issue at the time: Zuckerberg was being pressed on hate speech, but with far more concrete examples such as the far-right icon Alex Jones’ harassment of the families of children murdered at the Sandy Hook shooting. So why he felt like the useful thing to do was to instead spark a two-week-long news cycle about why he thought some Holocaust denial came from a place of sincere attempts to seek historical truth was unclear.

The answer, Frenkel and Kang suggest, is basically that Zuckerberg’s own cleverness ran away with him:

By allowing them to create a community on Facebook, he was showing he could put his personal feelings and opinions aside and adhere to a consistent rule based on logic. He was confident that people would see his thinking as a difficult but necessary way to maintain the integrity of speech policy on Facebook. Several members of his PR staff pleaded with him to rethink the strategy. There was no need to invoke such an extreme case of what Facebook considered free speech; it would only blow up in his face. But he ignored their advice.

What makes Facebook Facebook isn’t the fact that it seeks profit. In fact, I would say it is almost the opposite: it’s the fact that uniquely, a company with geopolitical power is ultimately governed, not by the cold calculus of the profit motive, but by the unpredictable motivations of a single, strange man.

Want more?

This isn’t the last you’ll be hearing about The Ugly Truth. Next Wednesday, I’ll be interviewing Kang and Frenkel as part of a Guardian event that I’ve unilaterally decided to declare “the first TechScape live show”. It starts at 8pm UK time, will be live-streamed online, and tickets can be bought for just £4 here. Do join us!

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