View from Washington: An Ugly Truth
The latest investigation into Facebook’s global impact is superbly researched and extremely disturbing.
“They’re killing people.”
With three words, President Biden this month slammed social media over the proliferation of Covid-19 disinformation. They did not sound like a warning – even a final warning – but the words of a man who has had enough and intends to do something about it.
They did another thing. They completely broke with the view that the new economy has largely fallen prey to unintended consequences and been a victim of its unprecedented growth and reach. They attributed agency and responsibility.
There was also a clear if not explicitly stated sense that the comment was aimed at one company in particular: Facebook.
Is this view justified? After reading 'An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination', it is hard to see things differently.
An exemplary piece of reporting by New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, it stands apart from rivals by drawing upon years of following the company and hundreds of interviews with Facebook staff. Many still work there and took huge risks as the book details the dubious ways in which employees and the reporters covering it are tracked.
'An Ugly Truth' thus accumulates evidence that debunks the notion that Facebook’s problems are beyond its control. Rather, they have been fuelled by its core strategy.
Concentrating mainly on the years around the victory and defeat of Donald Trump as President, Frenkel and Kang expose a disturbing pattern, repeated across events including Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Cambridge Analytica and Brexit, and the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Time and again, staff and others tried to warn the company’s leaders of what was happening or could happen. Time and again, they were ignored.
And time and again, the roots of that are found in an unwavering corporate strategy expressed in internal slogans, notably “Company over Country”, and an aggressive drive for global ubiquity and revenue where consequences were not so much unintended as disregarded.
Frenkel and Kang do not make the charge that the two most senior executives, founding CEO and controlling owner Mark Zuckerberg and his COO Sheryl Sandberg, were made fully aware of the internal warnings in a timely way. It is made very clear, however, that Zuckerberg set the policy and, by-and-large, Sandberg followed it dutifully along with many others at the top. As a result, too many decisions are shown to reek of 'plausible deniability'.
Most important, Frenkel and Kang show that the consequences are what really matter and that, when they were exposed, Zuckerberg’s willingness to change tack ranged from the gnomic to the non-existent with major and avoidable errors in-between.
That perhaps is where 'An Ugly Truth' is especially disturbing. It depicts a commercial titan with a power that eclipses even that of Bill Gates in recent memory and rather recalls Thomas Edison and John D Rockefeller. Yet even in their times, neither had the global reach and social influence Zuckerberg has. In that context, the results of inaction can be especially great.
The end of the book makes this clear. To Facebook’s credit, the company worked hard to get ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, opening its site to unlimited messaging from public health organisations, chiefly at Zuckerberg’s prompting. And initially it succeeded. But, after 'An Ugly Truth' went to press, history began to repeat itself. The systemic flaws in the strategy and the resulting algorithms have since allowed misinformation to gradually spread across the network and brought us to Biden’s justified exasperation. Doing good doesn’t fix bad, if you don’t address the bad.
Frenkel and Kang have written an essential book. It blows away notions of technological determinism and cuts to the heart of what our industry and society must now face. Because it ultimately exposes neither a bad man – Zuckerberg genuinely believes he can make the world a better place – nor a bad company – as the fact that so many still-optimistic staff spoke to the authors shows – but the consequences of what feels like a subordination of state-of-the-art technology to unchecked and almost monomaniacal corporate groupthink.
We know regulation is coming but 'An Ugly Truth' shows it may need to be much tougher than originally expected – and it looks like the current President of the United States agrees.
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