facebook zuckerberg

View from Washington: For Zuck's sake, read the room

Facebook's spin looks to have finally worn out its welcome.

According to one of her biographers, the writer Dorothy Parker would greet a ring at the door by declaring, “What fresh hell can this be?” Right now, writing about Facebook elicits much the same feeling.

You sit down to author some, you hope, coherent thoughts on the company and... Ding-dong: Instagram damages the self-esteem of young women. Ding-dong: Backbone/DNS snafu leaves continents cut off for six hours. Ding-dong: Whistleblower claims Facebook is “tearing societies apart” and putting profit before people. Ding-dong: Mark Zuckerberg launches counterbid for Newcastle United.

OK, I made one of those up, but you get my drift. And we’re not done yet. A report in The Verge says the troubled social media giant is to unveil a change-of-name, likely to be a new umbrella brand for all its operations including the main social media platform (much like Alphabet hovers over Google).

But far more remarkably, the company has taken to Twitter – yes, Twitter, one of its main competitors and a beneficiary of its recent outage – to launch what looks like both a pre-emptive rebuttal of imminent new revelations and a full-on hissy fit.

If you haven’t seen its comments already, they need to be read in full. Attributed to John Pinette, vice-president of communications, the five-Tweet thread says:

“We expect the press to hold us accountable, given our scale and role in the world. But when reporting misrepresents our actions and motivations, we believe we should correct the record.

“Over the last 6 weeks, including over the weekend, we’ve seen how documents can be mischaracterized. Obviously, not every employee at Facebook is an executive; not every opinion is the company’s position.

“Right now 30+ journalists are finishing up a coordinated series of articles based on thousands of pages of leaked documents. We hear that to get the docs, outlets had to agree to the conditions and a schedule laid down by the PR team that worked on earlier leaked docs.

“A curated selection out of millions of documents at Facebook can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us. Internally, we share work in progress and debate options. Not every suggestion stands up to the scrutiny we must apply to decisions affecting so many people.

“To those news organizations who would like to move beyond an orchestrated ‘gotcha’ campaign, we are ready to engage on the substance.”

Even given that getting your retaliation in first is a hallmark of crisis PR, this is something. Facebook is mounting a counterattack based on the evils of disinformation. Please, just read that last sentence again and let it sink in.

Then consider the inherent sniffiness shown towards staff conducting internal research – as well as the further patronising of the latest whistleblower, Frances Haugen – and the promise to “engage” from a company regarded across mainstream and specialist media as gnomic in detail and frequently plain unresponsive. Certainly any editor reading Pinette’s last Tweet over breakfast would have done well not to pebbledash the kitchen table with his or her granola.

I don’t have a clue what is specifically in the new reporting, but it is surely clear that the problems with Facebook go back a lot further than six weeks. Haugen’s revelations have tended only to confirm a lot of what has gone before rather than highlight anything new in terms of the company’s corporate culture and strategy – depressing but not that surprising. Most of us outside the incoming story expect it to also deliver more of the same (but, as the great Dorothy warned us, you can never know for sure).

Facebook needs to ask itself if things would have got to this point if it had ever properly taken time to, frankly, read the flippin’ room. In fact several rooms, starting with the company’s own staff.

Would there be such a steady trickle of willing leakers and reports of widespread concern expressed at internal town halls, if many employees themselves were not increasingly concerned about Facebook’s direction? And all that in spite of the reported measures Facebook takes to stop them.

Much journalism depends on leaks and all big companies face them, but I struggle to recall any instance in a 30-year career where ethics were so frequently at their forefront and personal axe-grinding so absent for a technology company – at least where the actions involved were not criminal.

Then there is civil society. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have delivered explanation after explanation and apology after apology but the actions taken have repeatedly fallen short of what is needed, and there has been little transparency and few reported deliverables around those actions. Here are just some of the latest claims around the global quality of its content moderation.

Beyond that though, Facebook has achieved such reach across most of the world that an increasing proportion of the general public can intuit that something is seriously wrong – notably minorities, women, politicians, doctors, parents and, yes, journalists, including far too many who cover technology for a living and are usually well disposed to innovative companies. The brutal diagnosis of Facebook by former Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg in Kara Swisher’s Sway podcast this week is a case in point: “I think the company is fundamentally unethical,” he says. And that’s just the start of it.

PR won’t wash any more. Indeed, this latest Twitter tactic feels so petulant that it may lend greater credence for many to whatever Facebook Papers II says. Rather, the company needs to heed why the leaks are taking place, take concrete action at scale to address criticisms and flaws, and allow genuinely independent analysis of whatever those steps are. Nothing else will do – nothing else would ever have been sufficient.

Facebook can spin things all it wants, but the likely response is set to recall another famous Parkerism: “This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

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