Flashback: Why Facebook Can Never Fix Itself

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The Facebook engineer really wanted to know why his date hadn’t replied to his messages. Maybe there was a simple explanation – maybe she was sick or on vacation.

So one night at 10 p.m. at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, he went to her Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and started looking at her personal information. Your politics, your lifestyle, your interests – even your location in real time.

The engineer would be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who had improperly misused their access to company data, a privilege that would then be available to all employees at Facebook, regardless of their job position or seniority. The vast majority of the 51 were just like him: men seeking information about the women they were interested in.

In September 2015, after Alex Stamos, the new Chief Security Officer, made Mark Zuckerberg aware of the problem, the CEO ordered a system overhaul to restrict employee access to user data. It was a rare win for Stamos that convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame, not individual behavior.

So start An ugly truth, a new book on Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. With Frenkel’s expertise in cybersecurity, Kang’s expertise in technology and regulatory policy, and their extensive sources, the duo delivers a compelling report on Facebook’s years between the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Stamos wouldn’t be so lucky anymore. The problems that arose from Facebook’s business model would only escalate in the years that followed, but when Stamos exposed even more egregious problems, including Russian interference in the US elections, he was ousted for sharing uncomfortable truths about Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg demonstrated. Following his departure, the leadership continued to refuse to address a slew of deeply worrying issues, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Myanmar genocide and rampant Covid misinformation.

The authors Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel

BEOWULF SHEEHAN

Frenkel and Kang argue that Facebook’s problems today are not the product of a lost company. Instead, they’re part of his design, built on Zuckerberg’s narrow worldview, the carefree privacy culture he fostered, and the jaw-dropping ambitions he pursued with Sandberg.

When the company was small, such a lack of foresight and imagination could perhaps be excused. But since then, Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s decisions have shown that growth and sales trump everything else.

In a chapter entitled “Company Over Country,” for example, the authors document how the leadership tried to bury the extent of Russian electoral interference by US intelligence, Congress and the American public on the platform. They censored the Facebook security team’s multiple attempts to post details of the information found and selected the dates to downplay the severity and partisan nature of the problem. When Stamos proposed reorganizing the company to prevent the problem from happening again, other executives dismissed the idea as “alarmist” and focused their resources on gaining control of public narrative and keeping regulators in check.


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