Facebook's Ugly Update: Everything You Knew Was True, But Worse

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A new book that has hit the bestseller lists like a thunderclap comes with a creepy photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the cover and a very effective summary on the back flap of something way better than blurbs: A timeline of mealy-mouthed apologies from Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

The back cover of “An Ugly Truth,” by New York Times writers Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, could save you a lot of reading time: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” Zuckerberg condescended in September 2006. “We never meant to upset you,” said Sandberg in July 2014. On goes the list with similar expressions of sincerity in 2017, 2018, 2019, none of them convincing, all of them undermined by evidence of the company’s actions or lack thereof, culminating in Zuckerberg’s May 2020: “We need to do a better job.”

Sure. But it’s pretty evident that Facebook is not ever going to do a good enough job at keeping our democracy safe by reigning in misinformation, blocking hate speech, fact-checking paid political lies and replacing the business model for newspapers that it destroyed.

Cecilia Kang Sheera Frenkel An Ugly Truth authors
Cecilia Kang Sheera Frenkel An Ugly Truth authors

Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel (CNBC/CNN)

Instead, the social media giant looks poised to continue on its current path of achieving mammoth revenues and profits with advertising powered by its bottomless well of data, and an offense-oriented strategy against its critics backed by Oxbridge-accented flacks, a large army of D.C. lobbyists and an ownership structure that means only Zuckerberg’s opinion really matters.

The thing about this new book, which has put the authors on pretty much every talk show and news platform in the past two weeks, is that it confirms in greater detail everything we already knew about Facebook and that been laid out previously by investigative journalists (including Kang and Frenkel) and sharp-minded critiques from early co-founders, investors or executives who have left in frustration.

“You won’t find anyone more ruthless in business than Mark,” says one former executive about the boss and his priorities, in the book.

And on Sandberg: “Arrogance is her weakness, her blind spot. She believes there is no person she can’t charm or convince,” says another former executive.

The book provides chapter and verse detail with many of the former Facebook folks, who are the most knowledgeable about the fact that Facebook did not blunder its way into the role of national villain that it currently inhabits. It did so through a deliberate series of decisions.

Among those decisions was to de-emphasize security when Facebook security chief Alex Stamos raised the alarm about Russian hacking and trolls farms during the 2016 election. Stamos ultimately quit and is now one of the company’s most vocal critics.

Another was to ignore repeated entreaties from human rights activists to remove hate-mongering posts against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2015 (Facebook assigned one single Burmese speaker to monitor thousands of posts.) A Rohingya genocide took place in 2016 and 2017 when one million were forced to flee.

Another was to hire and then quickly shut down CIA veteran Yael Eisenstat in 2018 to lead the company’s effort to combat election interference. But Eisenstat was told not to attend meetings on election integrity. When she warned that allowing paid political ads to go un-fact-checked could poison the electoral process, she was pointedly ignored; the company instead announced that it would not do so. Then she built a tool to block efforts to mislead voters on Election Day. They abruptly fired her. “None of it made sense,” she told the authors.

The book lays end to end the stunning number of high-level departures by talented executives frustrated by Zuckerberg’s broken promises, or his unwillingness to modify his dogmatic views on unadulterated free expression, and more generally the consequences of failing to take responsibility for the impact of Facebook on society.

To name a few:

* Chief Product Officer Chris Cox

* Head of Security Alex Stamos

* Director of Online Safety Rita Rabi

* Platform Operations Manager Sandy Parakilas

* Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger

* Co-founder Chris Hughes

The inescapable conclusion is that Facebook can’t get it right. On the occasions when the company tries to act like a good corporate citizen, it’s too little too late. But there is just as compelling an argument that no company could step up the challenge of controlling the content of 2.85 billion global users.

Which is to say, Facebook is just too big. Too powerful. Too unwieldy. And, still, totally unaccountable.

The question is: What are we going to do about it?

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