How can you connect more people around the world and profit from them too; that is Facebook’s dilemma and its dark reality, claim technology reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in their book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.
Frenkel and Kang focus on Facebook’s missteps over the last five years, to show how they are not random stumbles, they stem from the inexorable logic of its business model.
It begins with the creepy story of a Facebook engineer checking out the private information of a woman he’s been on a date with. Turns out, all data including passwords, private messages, deleted pictures and location had been accessible to the engineering team with no checks until a few years ago, because Mark Zuckerberg just thought it would be easier that way.
This book focuses on both Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, their instincts, goals and blind spots, to show how narrow the company’s worldview is, and how immense its capacities are.
As the platform expanded, its model has been to make self-interested changes, treat users like lab rats, and then shrug and apologise. When it first launched the public news feed, people were appalled at the stream of intimate information about themselves.
This comes in part from Zuckerberg’s own cavalier idea of privacy, the book suggests. When a journalist told him that he could not come out as gay in the Philippines and therefore might have a good reason to want his secrets kept, he seemed to not register the import. Later, at a US Congressional hearing on Cambridge Analytica, when he declined to divulge the name of his hotel or the people he messaged, he seemed to appreciate the value of privacy for himself. Sandberg too, for all her good intentions about gender equality, seemed to not understand other people’s contexts too clearly, and this comes through in many fateful decisions.
When faced with the knowledge that covert Russian groups and troll farms were trying to tilt the 2016 US election and manipulate opinion, Facebook waffled. Alex Stamos, the cybersecurity head conducted an independent investigation and apprised the leadership of his findings, only to be blamed by Sandberg, and then end up leaving the company.
At the core of Facebook’s recent troubles, the book argues, has been Mark Zuckerberg’s simplistic conception of free speech – refusing to take down misinformation, hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric, maintaining in every instance that “the only way to fight bad information is with good information”. This callow notion naturally has no defence against concerted hate campaigns, and the deliberate sowing of confusion and chaos. The platform actively amplifies these attempts, given the nature of the algorithm.
Lacking a principled framework on speech, and single-mindedly chasing engagement and revenue, Facebook gave free play to Donald Trump’s provocations too, letting itself be used to plan the Capitol violence. And after the Biden inauguration, it has now set up an oversight board to duck responsibility, which has banned Trump altogether. As it lays out the company’s recurring patterns, the book makes a persuasive case that this seeming lack of principle is intrinsic to Facebook. Its mission is to ‘connect people’ for better or for worse, and its driving motive is simply profit for its investors and shareholders. And that truth is as ugly as you think it is.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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