By Padraig Colman
This is a review of a book by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang called An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination. The book gets its title from a memo written in 2016 by Andrew Bosworth (Boz), a vice-president who had been at Facebook since the early days. The memo, entitled “The Ugly”, was leaked to BuzzFeed after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “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 good.” The memo was circulated the day after the death of a Chicago man was shown live on Facebook.
The authors claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. There have been many books about Facebook, and I have read quite a few of them. Do we need another one? This one is better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre and I found it a gripping read which made me think deeply about the bizarre world that Facebook (along with Google, Apple and Amazon) have placed us in and what they have done to our heads.
The villains of the drama are Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer. In late 2007, Zuckerberg met Sandberg at a Christmas party. A marriage made in hell. Sandberg was then working at Google where she was responsible for online sales of Google's advertising and publishing products. During her time at Google, she grew the ad and sales team from four people to 4,000. In March 2008, Facebook announced the hiring of Sandberg as COO. Frenkel and Kang believe, "they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth—with $85.9 billion in revenue in 2020 and a market value of $800 billion—and entirely deliberate in its design."
Mendacious from the Start
Zuckerberg launched the Facebook social networking service from his Harvard dormitory room on 4 February 2004. It was originally targeted on colleges but expanded rapidly beyond that, reaching one billion users by 2012. Even in the Harvard days, there were complaints that Zuckerberg was behaving unethically and producing something different from what he claimed. Even at the very beginning the site was ostensibly about connecting people but its main purpose was data-mining.
On 6 November 2007, Zuckerberg announced Beacon, a social advertising system that enabled people to share information with their Facebook friends based on their browsing activities on other sites. The programme came under scrutiny because of privacy concerns from groups and individual users. To quote Frenkel and Kang: “Zuckerberg had not asked permission from Facebook account holders to use them as sales agents; Beacon enrolled them automatically. Facebook was widening its data net, exploiting insights about its users in ways that crossed ethical lines.”
Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. Chester was quoted in the New York Times describing behavioral advertising as a “digital data vacuum cleaner on steroids.” Everyone knew to be wary of the government’s reach, but in Chester’s estimation the danger wasn’t what the public or law enforcement knew about you. It was what commercial enterprises and advertisers did. It was what Facebook knew. He claimed that Facebook’s business model hijacked attention for commercial purposes, “inducing people to give up their autonomy.”
Open Graph was a programme that allowed outside app developers to gain access to Facebook users’ information. In return, Facebook got users to extend their sessions on the site. In the first week after Zuckerberg announced the creation of Open Graph at the F8 developers’ conference in San Francisco,50,000 websites had installed Open Graph plug-ins. Facebook offered the apps access to users’ names, email addresses, cities of residence, birth dates, relationship details, political affiliations, and employment history.
Disconnection, Discord and Deceit
Profit seems to entail secrecy and unethical practices, suppression and punishment of whistleblowers. In 2012, operations manager Sandy Parakilas, alerted senior executives to the dangers of Open Graph which left users exposed to data brokers and foreign state actors. Parakilas later noted in a Washington Post op-ed that in his sixteen months working at Facebook, he never saw “a single audit of a developer where the company inspected the developer’s data storage.” He believed the explanation for lax enforcement was simple: “Facebook didn’t want to make the public aware of huge weaknesses in its data security.” The executives scoffed. “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?”
Shoot the Messenger
It is ironic that the Frenkel and Kang’s book shows us that the reality of a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, is a corporate culture which demands secrecy and unquestioning loyalty. There was a corporate atmosphere which made people unwilling to bring the leaders bad news.
For an organisation that is predicated on communication FB has a tin ear for how it is itself perceived. Zuckerberg seems to be on an autism spectrum. Sandberg does not know how to conduct herself appropriately. When she appeared before important committees, she tucked her feet underneath her and chatted casually as if she were having a chat with friends. For all the talk of her vaunted political instincts, time and again, she misread situations and revealed herself to be curiously oblivious and overconfident.
Alex Stamos had a reputation for blunt speech and high standards. When he left Yahoo to join Facebook as Chief Security Officer in 2015, it was seen as a sign that there was something deeply wrong at that company. His move indicated that he saw something at Facebook worth working for. However, it did not turn out well for Stamos. The book gives us a fly-on-the-wall access to a shouting match at a Facebook board meeting over Russian election interference. There was resistance to a proper investigation. Stamos and his team had filed report after report about Russian activity on Facebook, but no-one responded. Stamos got no kudos for his findings. When the issue hit the fan, he was blamed.
“None of the revelations so far of Facebook’s foibles have harmed the company financially; in June, it became the fastest-ever company to reach $1 trillion in market value, validating Zuckerberg’s grow-at-all-costs strategy. We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”
Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote, Facebook’s success “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.”
One gets the feeling that we have lived with and for Facebook forever and it is part of our natural world immoveable and indestructible. I remember my history teacher, Mike England, commenting in 1963, that the Russian socialist project had withstood so many vicissitudes over 46 years that it would probably endure forever. By 1991, it had gone. Facebook has been with us for only 17 years and it seems unlikely that it will endure forever. However, even if regulators, or Zuckerberg himself, decided to one day end the Facebook experiment, the technology and the warped thinking and behaviour they have unleashed upon us is here to stay.
More next week about how Facebook has warped us.