In their new book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, two New York Times journalists pull off the difficult feat of telling a story many of us feel we already know, in such a way that we quickly discover just how much we don’t know.
The award-winning writers both cover technology for the paper, but bring different areas of expertise to the book. Cecilia Kang, based in Washington DC, covers the business end of technology, with a focus on regulatory policy, while Sheera Frenkel, out in San Francisco, covers the technical side of technology, with an expertise in cybersecurity.
The book arose out of an investigative story that ran in the New York Times in November 2018, “Delay, Deny, and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis”. The explosive, detailed piece focused on the company’s clumsy leadership stumbles and questionable handling of a succession of crises, including the Russian misinformation campaign on the platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.
“During that time, we had such a good partnership,” says Frenkel. “I was in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, Cecilia was in Washington. Our sources and our interests really complemented each other. We left so much in our notebooks, so much that we didn’t get to include in the article that we thought would be really fascinating for readers.
“You know, in an article you can say, for instance, that a meeting happened, but you can’t give the nuance of what different people in the room thought and how it was so warm that the person giving a presentation was sweating; all the kind of colourful detail that makes the scene come alive.”
Frenkel says the writing process “was just very collaborative”, much of it a long-distance process between opposite coasts during a pandemic.
“I think there were certain chapters where it was very clear that it was going to rely more on Cecilia’s sources, or my sources. And so that person would take the lead in writing that particular chapter. And then there were a lot of other chapters that were a mix of the two of us. I honestly think it helped that neither one of us really had an ego. This was done in a very collaborative way, where we both wanted to elevate each other’s work.”
Colourful details abound in An Ugly Truth, granting it a driving narrative force that propels a reader through a story whose basic outline is already known from years of headline stories, political hearings and, of course, the counter-campaigning by Facebook. It's full of the kind of vivid specificity that comes directly from high-level sources, from people who fidgeted in the executive meeting rooms during tense and angry sessions that without doubt, generated plenty of sweat, and not just from the heat of a room.
“We knew that there was more to say thematically, as well as to connect the dots between all the things that we were learning in our reporting on certain episodes and scenes,” says Kang. “We really wanted to explore the business model as well as the technologies and how those two things are so core to understanding Facebook beyond just the episodic news stories that we were writing, on scandal after scandal after scandal. And we also really wanted to do a deep exploration of the leadership.”
The goal was to produce a book that wouldn’t be just news, “but an education as well”, Kang says. “I think people are a little bit bored or jaded by one scandal after another. This is why it was so important for us to explain and show how the creation of the business model, and the technologies that amplify content, are such core problems.”
And to forefront the “wash, rinse and repeat cycle” of problem management – Facebook’s strategy of delay, deny, deflect.
An Ugly Truth is centred on Facebook’s actions, reactions, and, far too often, failure to act at all in the period spanning the last two US presidential elections, from 2016 to 2021. The writers show convincingly how decisions taken about the core technologies behind the platform meld with business decisions to create a destructive but highly profit-maximising mix.
That speech violated the company's hate-speech policies. But Facebook decided to give him an exemption
Algorithms designed to promote a user’s engagement with the platform also boost outrage, disinformation and conspiracy theories – and then swiftly suggest other similar pages. As Russian operatives quickly discovered in the 2016 election, the system is easy to game and exploit.
The Trumpian span of the book isn't accidental. "Donald Trump surfaced a lot of those problems to the broader public," says Kang.
One of the first troublesome events highlighted in An Ugly Truth is Facebook’s response to Trump’s campaign speech in which he promised to ban Muslims from entering the US. “That speech violated the company’s hate-speech policies. But Facebook decided to give him an exemption. And that set off a chain reaction” that culminated in Facebook’s deeply controversial “newsworthy speech” exemption that allowed political figures to say anything, even lie outright, without threat of having their post or videos removed.
At the close of the book, Trump's use of the platform to wrongly insist he'd won the 2020 election, and to goad supporters to show up to the national capitol on January 6th, creates yet another internal Facebook crisis. Despite warnings from Facebook's security experts that some users were expressing alarming intentions to gather in Washington on the day, Facebook executives decide not to notify chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in case the media got wind.
Likewise, the book argues, Facebook failed to act on its security team’s growing concern about Russian activity on the platform before the presidential election, because notifying US authorities might bring unwanted scrutiny and attention.
“[Facebook] made a lot of decisions based on Trump and his posts and his activity on the social network,” Kang says. Trump himself became “a massive priority”, draining attention away from the very problems on the platform that his activities forefronted, depriving them of needed resources, thoughtful policy and decisive action.
The book shows how concerns and criticisms are regularly ignored or suppressed, whether raised by top management or employees at Facebook’s regular “all hands” open meetings with Zuckerberg.
“Facebook really prides itself on what it thinks is internal transparency,” says Frenkel. And yet, when its leaders are confronted by employees, “they often deflect, they give PR lines, they don’t really engage with a lot of the criticism or really internalise the criticism. And so it’s one thing to tell your employees, ‘we want to hear from you’. And another thing to actually listen when employees speak.”
A lot of Facebook's problems stem from the separation between the policy and tech sides of the company
Senior employees don’t seem to listen to each other, either. Frenkel says that since the book was published in July, she and Kang had heard back from sources who had been in the same meetings, yet were surprised to learn from the book what others had been thinking.
“I think a lot of Facebook’s problems stem from the separation between the policy and tech sides of the company, those two sides of the company not talking to each other, not understanding each other,” says Frenkel. “So often, I was told one thing by one side of the company, Cecilia was told something else by a different side of the company, and we realised, like, ‘oh, these two sides of the company don’t even know that they were in disagreement in this meeting’.”
The most dramatic internal discord in the book, and an ongoing, shaping thread, is the growing disconnect and isolation between Zuckerberg and the woman who was for a long time, the public face of the company, chief operations officer Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg came to Facebook from Google, where she was the main architect of that company's lucrative targeted advertising business model.
At Facebook, that basic model could be pumped up even further by utilising all the highly specific data that can be gleaned about each Facebook user, from posts, interactions and even by tracking a user’s activity once they leave the platform and go elsewhere on the web. Sandberg turned Facebook into a cash cow but, according to the book, Zuckerberg became disgruntled with her when she failed to sufficiently rebuff criticisms and fend off inquiries.
“We were always interested in [Sandberg] because in many ways she was the face of many of Facebook’s decisions. She had put herself out there in the media defending a lot of their decisions, even before the start of Russian election interference in 2016,” says Frenkel. “As Facebook often says, she was the second most powerful person at the company and as the person who ran things like the policy team and the business side, we thought it was really important to look at her.
“And then I really think, as we were reporting this book, and as we realised how her influence has kind of waned, and her voice was not heard on critical decisions, we became more and more interested.”
Nick Clegg is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and for five years served as deputy UK prime minister
The company has denied any rift between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, but anyone following the company closely will have noticed that the go-to person now for comment and explanation is – perhaps disconcertingly for those on this side of the Atlantic – one Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice-president for global affairs and communications since 2018. Clegg is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK and for five years served as deputy UK prime minister.
“He is taking over more of her responsibilities,” notes Kang, who co-wrote a profile of Clegg for the New York Times a few months ago. “He is ambitious. He really sees the future of politics, global governance, being at the intersection with technology. It’s a really good position for him to be in, to be at the tip of the spear on that at Facebook. I think that this is a very shrewd move on his part to take this kind of job because at Facebook, their biggest challenges will be navigating the political waters globally. Issues that make for such a ripe kind of portfolio for someone like Clegg, who actually likes that kind of stuff.”
Zuckerberg seems to trust him too, she adds. “Nick Clegg has broken into that inner circle to some extent, so we may see him take on more.”
Interestingly, Kang says wrote written a section about the relationships Facebook was developing with government leaders in Ireland, but it didn’t make it into the book.
In the long line-up of troubling Facebook scandals, does any event particularly stand out?
“The one that stands out right now to me is all the hate speech and organising that occurred before [the insurrection on] January 6th, because it’s so recent,” says Kang. “And their handling of Covid misinformation. Those are both examples of how Facebook’s handling of its own product, which is content and speech, has really led to real life examples of harm, very dramatic harms.”
We went into it thinking we knew a lot about Facebook, and that ... they just can't seem to get their act together
Her biggest surprise was to realise that episode after episode recounted in the book emerged not out of some haphazard coincidence of timing and misfortune, but rather was the predictable offspring of the marriage between Facebook’s technologies and its business model.
“I think we went into it thinking we knew a lot about Facebook, and that, like, oh, boy, they just can’t seem to get their act together. They’re not looking around the corner. But they didn’t not only not look around the corner, they created something that would inevitably result in where we are today.”
And don’t expect Facebook’s board to take any meaningful action. Because Zuckerberg controls a majority of the company’s voting shares, the board “is sort of a paper tiger. It’s very much an advisory board.”
Frenkel says “one other thing we tried to show with the book was that ultimately, nothing has really changed. Neither the business model nor the executive C-suite has really changed from the beginning. How can you expect that pattern to shift? If you have the same people making the same types of decisions predicated on the same business model, you are going to probably see yourself repeating mistakes.
“So many people have asked us, ‘Will this bring change? Would you expect [Facebook] to do different?’ Our answer has been well, you know, we haven’t seen them fundamentally change anything.”
But Facebook management might be driven towards change from within. Facebook’s own employees may be the strongest force for a corporate rethink.
"One thing internally that has changed, and we showed this towards the end [of the book], is employee outreach. I do think that's very powerful," says Frenkel. "Because all of these Silicon Valley companies, Facebook, Google, Apple, they all compete for the same talent. And if Facebook's own employees are getting so riled up that they're leaving, and more importantly, new recruits are not joining the company because they'd rather work somewhere else?
"Facebook knows that's really going to end up damaging them in the long run."
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination, by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, is published by Bridge Street Press