View from Washington: Time to take Facebook to the system level

And not to the woodshed, because those taking a caning now over the latest revelations will almost certainly be needed to fix them.

The latest revelations about Facebook have resulted in yet another wave of outrage directed at its senior management and its now-former lobbyists’ use of a blatantly anti-Semitic strategy directed at George Soros to combat earlier criticism was unquestionably repellent.

So, the attacks are entirely justified. However, once it steps into a wholesale questioning of the personal character, ethics and morals of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg - as is now happening - we’re talking pitchforks and torches and not solutions. Given Facebook’s ubiquity, it is solutions – and real ones – that we need.

Read The New York Times investigation and it is clear that while both leaders made serious misjudgements in recognising and addressing the problems the company has come to face, there is a wider, structural concern that Facebook is out of control.

The article shows how communications channels failed, delegation was ineffective, personal priorities clouded corporate action and, worst of all, the company’s own understanding of how its functions is worrying limited. Has any enterprise of this size ever been exposed as so vulnerable to the Law of Unintended Consequences?

Consider this comparison. Calls to break up Facebook often compare its leadership to the Robber Barons of the earlier industrial age - but there is an important distinction between the two.

Those barons understood their businesses well and those businesses were much easier to understand. They were resource-based and resource-constrained, had highly defined supply chains and exerted their authority vertically rather than horizontally. This allowed the barons to wield undue influence over rivals and entire markets.

Facebook clearly does not understand large parts of its business. It shares virtually none of those qualities. Case in point, the Times shows how painfully slowly it dawned on executives that users were being exploited by Russian hackers and what the implications could be.

There is, therefore, an argument that one huge problem is not so much about how Facebook wields power, but how bad actors wield the power that Facebook offers. There is no question that Facebook behaves like an aggressive competitor, but, particularly in its insistence that it is a ‘platform’ and not a ‘publisher’, it even seems reticent to use the power it knows it does have.

As if to ram that point home further, it is also a now unmistakeable trend for Facebook too often to propose point solutions to what are clearly systemic problems. More content moderators. More tools to flag questionable content. More forced disclosure from advertisers. And so on, ad apologia. Sure, those components will be part of the solution, but the company has said little about how they should combine – largely, you suspect, because again it doesn’t really know.

You can attribute a lot of this to the rate at which Facebook has grown. It is somewhat a victim of its own success. You can also cite that old chestnut that the causes of a business’ failure sometimes lie in the reasons for its initial success. You don’t reach 2.3 billion customers in just under 15 years without making a few cock-ups. Facebook’s ubiquity now tends to render such business-school diagnoses almost secondary.

Finally, taking a system-level view of its problems is, ironically, a task that almost certainly has to be led by those with the greatest existing insight into what has been unleashed. That, for starters, would be Zuckerberg and Sandberg. There is no escaping the fact. They need to focus on that level, clear away all distractions and get on with the job, bringing in people who can help.

On that point, another takeaway from The Times article is that while Facebook gets that it faces a socio-politico challenge as much as a technology one, its focus has been too much on the politics and too little on the social. User growth has slowed significantly.

I don’t want to be another columnist to use former deputy PM Nick Clegg as a piñata, but, well, he’s such an obvious example. For all his talents, Clegg is another political high-level addition to an organisation who looks better suited to pleading its case in the corridors of power than making sure that school corridors don’t get polluted by digital effluent.

This would all be so much easier if Facebook’s leadership were morally bankrupt. It could simply be swept away. Drunk on power? Far too evasive? Often downright arrogant? Well, ‘yes’ to those last three – and you could reasonably add they’ve been a bit too avaricious. Nobody emerges well from the Times piece.

Yet I struggle to believe that these people are morally unfit for purpose - and there’s sound evidence to the contrary.

Somewhere in there is the talent to acknowledge the real high-level problem, internally and publicly, and there is definitely enough money to do something about it.

One good place to start? Facebook needs to communicate with those who research how its users communicate (and whatever it might claim, it doesn’t do anywhere near enough, because I’ve talked to plenty of those researchers). It needs to listen to those who have dug deep into how it has been manipulated by bad actors (far too often, though, they have been ignored and recast as enemies).

And it needs to stop apologising.

If the next time Facebook hits the headlines is because it does so proactively to explain how it is trying to build a broad and deep solution, that would be a start. It doesn't even have to be a finished one - just a sign that it gets it. Again, we all know who’ll have to front that presentation.

So, keep your stones in your pockets. Cattle prods may be useful, though.

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