Hhow many books are there on facebook? I lost count. Many of them belong to the genre of “insider” story – by one of the company’s early investors, perhaps; or by a supposed relative of its founder and supreme guide; or by an ex-employee with a bad conscience for the societal damage for which he (and it is always him, by the way) was responsible; or (occasionally) by a vigorous social media critic like Siva Vaidhyanathan or Franklin Foer.
I read most of them and so I approached An ugly truth with some skepticism because of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. On the one hand, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of New York Times journalists who are members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer Prize. More importantly, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with approximately 400 people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, as well as investors and Facebook advisers, as well as lawyers and activists who have long been fighting the company. So, if it is an “insider” account, it is better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.
We’ll see what this account reveals in a moment, but let’s clarify the title first. This comes from the header of an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (AKA “Boz”), a senior Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we are connecting more people,” he says. “It can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone’s life to expose someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a coordinated terrorist attack on our tools. . And we always connect people. The horrible truth is that we believe in the importance of connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”
In a way, it tells you everything you need to know about Facebook. The only thing Boz failed to mention is that the more people who “log into” Facebook, the more money he makes. And the point of view of its HQ is that it is only in its infancy in the history of growth. 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, from the megalomaniacal point of view of the supreme guide of the company, that there is still 5 billion to “connect”. 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 this up, then an inspection of some of Zuckerberg’s essays on his Facebook page may get you thinking.
While progress towards world domination has, to date, progressed as expected, there have been a few hiccups – or, at least, public relations issues – going on. Focusing their investigation, Frenkel and Kang largely focused on what happened inside Facebook in just four years – from the 2016 presidential election that brought Trump to power to Biden’s election in 2020.
They had a lot of material to go on. Among other things, this period includes: the Russian hack of the Clinton campaign; its consummate exploitation of Facebook’s advertising system to spread disinformation and introduce chaos into public discourse; the control by the Trump campaign of these same systems for the same ends; the Cambridge Analytica scandal; the smear campaign against George Soros; how the expansion of Facebook in Myanmar facilitated a genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims; the gunman’s live broadcast of the Christchurch Massacre in 2019; and the insurgents’ use of Facebook to plan (and live stream) the Jan.6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The co-authors’ exhumation of these hideous skeletons makes the reading as captivating as it is depressing. Two things in particular stand out. The first is that, in most cases, people inside Facebook were aware – and alarmed – about what was happening on the company’s systems, either because they had detected it or because they had detected it. they had been alerted by knowledgeable outsiders. And yet, when they brought their concerns to the people above them in the managerial hierarchy, not much happened – which may be why, in some cases, Zuckerberg seemed to ignore the impending crises until it was too late to pretend ignorance.
The most vivid example is what happened when internal investigators led by cybersecurity guru Alex Stamos discovered the extent of Russian interference in Facebook’s systems. Stamos’ attempts to alert his superiors to what was going on were rejected. All references to Russia in its draft white paper have been deleted by senior officials. But as the media began to suspect that something big was brewing, it was decided that the company’s board should be notified the day before its quarterly meeting on September 7, 2017. On September 6, Stamos therefore made a presentation to a delegated subcommittee. three members of the board of directors. They were stunned and furious in a suppressed way. “How do we only hear about this now?” said Erskine Bowles, who had been Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Equally eventful was the board meeting. But nothing substantial happened.
Why? Because the members of the board of directors serve entirely for the pleasure of Zuckerberg. In its regular statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company sums it up well: “Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, president and CEO, is able to vote the majority of the voting rights of our outstanding share capital and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted for shareholder approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could… lead to the completion of such a transaction that our other shareholders do not support. Zuckerberg could fire the whole board and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
This extraordinary document is not cited anywhere in An ugly truth, and yet it underlies his whole story. One of the striking revelations from the book is that there is more anxiety in the business than we realize. Many Facebook employees have been anxious, frustrated, or angry about what their employer has done in its relentless pursuit of growth. Some have tried to alert their superiors to their concerns. But time and time again, the bad news has failed to convince these bosses because they failed to synchronize with the overarching imperative of endless business growth. And, as HL Mencken pointed out, it’s hard to explain something to someone whose salary depends on not understanding it.
Zuckerberg’s obsession with growth is at the root of Myanmar’s catastrophe. Facebook has entered a country without democratic traditions, offering connectivity to people who had never used the Internet before. Company executives knew nothing about the country other than that it was promising territory for their CEO’s cherished “next billion” project. Upon entering Myanmar, Facebook had – as the book put it – “cast a match over decades of latent racial tensions and then turned around when activists pointed out the smoke slowly suffocating the country.” Ultimately, human rights officials estimated that 24,000 Rohingya were murdered and 700,000 Muslims fled to Bangladesh. And while that was happening, the inflammatory rhetoric of 18 million Facebook users who fueled the genocide was watched only by five native Burmese speakers, the book reports, none of whom were actually based in Myanmar.
So the “ugly truth” about Facebook is that it is an immensely powerful company with a toxic business model, led by an autocratic founder who is determined to dominate 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 magnificent book is: what are we going to do with it?
An Ugly Truth: In the Battle for Facebook Dominance by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang is published by Bridge Street Press (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply