Sunday, June 26

An Ugly Truth from Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang Review: Facebook’s Battle for Domination | Journalism books


HHow many books are there on Facebook? I lost the count. Many of them belong to the genre of “insider” history, perhaps by one of the first investors in the company; or by an intimate assumption of its founder and Supreme Leader; or by a former employee with a bad conscience for the social damage for which he (and it is always a he, by the way) has been responsible; or (occasionally) by an energetic social media critic like Siva Vaidhyanathan or Franklin Foer.

I have read most of these and approached An ugly truth with some skepticism for its subtitle: “Inside the battle for the domination of Facebook”. But this book is different. On the one hand, his co-authors are not “connoisseurs”, but a couple of seasoned New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize. More importantly, however, they claim to have conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with more than 400 individuals, including Facebook executives, former and current employees, and their families, friends, and classmates, as well as investors and advisers from Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if it is a “privileged” account, it has better fonts than all its predecessors in the genre.

We’ll get to what this account reveals in a moment, but let’s clarify the title first. It comes from the head of an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (aka “Boz”), a top Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we connect more people,” he says. “That can be bad if they make it negative. It may cost someone their life to expose someone to bullies. Maybe someone will be killed in a coordinated terrorist attack with our tools. And we still connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto well.”

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In a way, this tells you everything you need to know about Facebook. The only thing Boz failed to mention is that the more people “connect” to Facebook, the more money you make. And the opinion from its headquarters is that it is still a beginning in the growth story. After all, Facebook currently has 2.8 billion monthly active users and there are 7.8 billion people on the planet right now. Which means, in the megalomaniac vision of the Supreme Leader of the company, that leaves 5 billion still to be “connected”. Only then, when all sentient beings on the planet are on Facebook, will the world’s problems be solved. And if you think I’m making it up, then an inspection of some of Zuckerberg’s essays on his Facebook page might give you pause.

Although progress toward world domination has, to date, progressed according to plan, there have been some setbacks – or, if anything, public relations problems along the way. Focusing their investigation, Frenkel and Kang have largely focused on what happened inside Facebook for just four years, from the 2016 presidential election that brought Trump to power to the 2020 Biden election.

Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol in January.
Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol in January. Photograph: Joel Marklund / Bildbyran / Zuma Press / Rex / Shutterstock

They had a lot of material to continue. Among other things, this period includes: Russian piracy of the Clinton campaign; his consummate exploitation of Facebook’s advertising system to spread disinformation and introduce chaos into public discourse; the Trump campaign’s dominance of those same systems for the same purposes; the Cambridge Analytica scandal; the smear campaign against George Soros; how Facebook’s expansion in Myanmar facilitated a genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims; the shooter’s live broadcast of the 2019 Christchurch massacre; and the use of Facebook by insurgents to plan (and broadcast live) the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6.

The exhumation of these ghastly skeletons by the co-authors makes for a gripping and depressing read. Two things stand out in particular. The first is that, in most cases, the people within Facebook were aware of what was happening in the company’s systems, and were alarmed by it, either because they had been detected or had been alerted by people. well-informed outsiders. And yet, when they communicated their concerns to the people above them in the managerial hierarchy, not much happened, possibly explaining why in some cases Zuckerberg seemed unaware of the looming crisis until that it was too late to assert his ignorance.

The most striking example of this is what happened when internal investigators led by cybersecurity guru Alex Stamos uncovered the extent of Russian meddling in Facebook’s systems. Stamos’ attempts to alert his superiors to what was happening were ignored. The senior staff removed any mention of Russia in their draft of the white paper. But when the media began to suspect that something important was happening, it was decided that the company’s board of directors should be informed about it the day before its quarterly meeting on September 7, 2017. On September 6, therefore , Stamos made a presentation to a delegated subcommittee. of three board members. They were stunned and furious in an expletive-erased way. “How the hell are we hearing about this now?” said Erskine Bowles, who had been Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. The full board meeting was equally contentious. But nothing substantive happened.

Why? Because the board members serve entirely at Zuckerberg’s pleasure. In its regular filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company sums it up nicely: “Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, president, and chief executive officer, may exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our capital stock in circulation and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters presented to shareholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could … result in the consummation of a transaction that our other shareholders do not support. ”Zuckerberg could fire the entire board and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

This extraordinary document is not cited anywhere An ugly truthand yet it supports his entire narrative. One of the surprising revelations in the book is that there is more anxiety within the company than we realize. Many Facebook employees have been distraught, frustrated, or angry at what their employer has been doing in its tireless quest for growth. Some have tried to alert their superiors to their concerns. But time and time again the bad news hasn’t swayed those bosses because they were out of sync with the overriding imperative of endless corporate growth. And, as HL Mencken observed, it is difficult to explain something to someone whose salary depends on not understanding it.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017.
Facebook launched ‘a match ignited decades of simmering racial tension’ in Myanmar … Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017. Photograph: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Zuckerberg’s obsession with growth is what underpins the Myanmar catastrophe. Facebook entered a country without democratic traditions, providing connectivity for people who had never used the Internet before. Company executives knew nothing about the country except that it was promising territory for its CEO’s prized “next billion” project. Entering Myanmar, Facebook, as the book puts it, “threw a lit match at decades of simmering racial tension and then turned the other way as activists pointed to the smoke slowly suffocating the country.” In the end, human rights officials estimated that 24,000 Rohingya were killed and 700,000 Muslims fled to Bangladesh. And while this was going on, the incendiary rhetoric from 18 million Facebook users that fueled the genocide was monitored by just five native Burmese speakers, the book reports, none of whom were based in Myanmar.

So the “ugly truth” about Facebook is that it is an immensely powerful corporation with a toxic business model, run by an autocratic founder who is hell-bent on taking over the world. A prominent critic of the company once observed that “Facebook’s problem is Facebook.” Wrong. Facebook’s problem is Zuckerberg. And the question posed by this splendid book is: what are we going to do with it?

  • An ugly truth: inside the battle for Facebook dominance by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang is published by Bridge Street Press (£ 20). To support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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