Facebook’s strategy has always been to “move fast and break things.” In a brand-new exposé, two veteran New York Times reporters examine what’s been broken.
Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel aren’t your classic Silicon Valley tech beat reporters.
Kang, a 10-year veteran of the New York Times, is based in Washington, D.C, and covers “the intersection of technology and politics” for the Times. Frenkle, who is Bay Area-based and covers cybersecurity for the Times, spent a decade as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.
The pair soon realized there was a story — a subject, really — their two beats had in common: Facebook.
What initially brought the two reporters together, though, was looking at technology through an accountability lens, according to Kang. Misinformation and disinformation — and holding platforms that perpetrated their spread accountable — became huge stories on Frenkel’s security beat. Kang, in Washington, watched and wrote as lawmakers struggled to hold social media platforms accountable through regulation.
Kang and Frenkel’s new book, An Ugly Truth, was released July 13. It is a hard look at the inner workings of Facebook — and the culmination, the pair say, not just of their dogged reporting, but 400 interviews with current and former employees.
Ahead of their talk at Kepler’s Books July 15, we caught up with the pair to talk about the future of Facebook, its culture of ‘growth at all costs’ and how the company is reacting to the book (just as Kang and Frenkel expected it would).
Congratulations on the release. How does it feel to finally have the book out?
Sheera Frenkel: It’s been pretty incredible to finally know it’s out in the world — but it’s funny, Cecilia and I tried today to go see our book in an actual bookstore, and we couldn’t. We’ve been running around so much that the few stores we tried were closed or had odd hours, so we haven’t been able to see it in an actual store yet. That’s something we’re looking forward to, and might make it feel a little more real.
You’ve both covered technology for a while now: Tell me about the impetus for writing the book.
Cecilia Kang: Neither of us are conventional tech reporters, but we found ourselves very key reporters — because the (Facebook) story was not about gadgets. Starting several years ago, really, at the start of the election, it became a societal story. An issues story. We were writing a lot about problems at Facebook: reporting about election interference from 2016, to data privacy abuses, to misinformation and disinformation problems at Facebook.
It was just one episode after another, and we felt that the public didn’t fully understand Facebook apart from these discrete stories and the stories we were writing. We felt like Facebook deserved a book, because we had so much inside knowledge from many of our sources. We thought we could really pull the curtain on what kind of a company Facebook was and is, and go beyond the public image that they put out there of what Facebook is.
Do you feel like Facebook’s internal dysfunction makes it an exception in Silicon Valley? Or the rule?
SF: Facebook follows the model of a lot of Silicon Valley companies. We’ve seen this pattern repeat again and again, in which companies are urged to grow at any cost. It’s all about scaling up, getting as big as possible, getting as many users online as possible. The profits they’ll ignore until later, because they all have the similar ethos where if you become the market leader in something, you’ll be successful.
That’s what Silicon Valley focuses on, and often they point to Facebook as being the best example of a company that’s done that successfully.
What do you hope readers take away from the book? Who do you hope reads it?
SF: It’s important for people to understand the mechanisms by which algorithms drive content and control the newsfeed, to understand their role in shaping convos online. That’s something we hope this book achieves.
I sometimes wonder if people understood something very basic about the algorithm, which is that it is designed to show you emotive content — to inspire anger, sadness or joy — If they would then think differently about their own engagement with it. If they would look at their own newsfeeds and think, well, this piece of content surfaced because it is supposed to anger me, or sadden me. I might take another moment to find other sources of information on this topic.
The articles at the top of the newsfeed are not necessarily the most factual or objective ones; they might be just the most sensational. I don’t know if that’s healthy for our overall media literacy and how we read things online.
How are you expecting Facebook to react to the book? I just have to note that I read your tweet, Sheera, about managers at Facebook telling their employees not to read the book. It kind of took me aback, because it read like that same denial you talk about in your reporting. Sort of like: If we don’t acknowledge the problem, it’s not a problem.
SF: In our book we lay out a pretty clear pattern, which Facebook repeats over and over again. When something happens that’s a scandal or an embarrassment for the company, that pattern is delay, deny and deflect. Again, with our own book, we’ve seen that.
Facebook had every chance to respond to this book. We went through an incredibly thorough fact checking process with them that took several months. We read them through everything that was going to be in this book, so there were no surprises for them. And yet they first repeated these talking points about not being given a physical copy of the entire book. That isn’t standard journalistic practice.
Then they veered to internally telling their employees that the book was going to make news, that it was going to be damaging, and in the case of one manager — he urged his own employees not to buy the book, not to read the book. Then they moved to trying to dismiss the book, saying, oh, there are hundreds of books about Facebook out there, and this one is no different. In fact, I think people who follow Facebook closely know there have really been a handful of books about Facebook. So it’s been interesting watching their P.R. line follow that pattern we established in the book itself.
What is the role regulators should play here? I know, Cecilia, that you’ve said Washington has not been well educated enough on these kinds of platforms to regulate them.
CK: A few things that need to happen: We as a society and Washington have to define what Facebook is. What kind of a company is it? It is obviously an unprecedented communications tool that reaches more people than any other in history. How should it be regulated? Regulation will be the key.
That means either creating new laws or updating laws, many of which were written either in the telephone area, when it comes to communications, or when Rockefeller was a trust — when Rockefeller was one of the heads of trusts when steel and oil and sugar trusts were the subject of concern by Teddy Roosevelt. This is 100 years ago.
Right now what’s happening in Washington is regulators are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This is a new kind of company that needs new kinds of laws. There is incredible energy in Washington right now to address this. What I’m seeing right now about Washington needing to define and update laws — that’s something very few people would disagree with right now in Washington. There’s a lot of movement toward creating new legislation to hold Facebook to account, and other big tech companies as well.
Why do you think all of this stumbling has not impacted stock price/valuation?
SF: Despite all of the scandals around information — disinformation, misinformation, privacy abuses — the business is soaring. The business has not slowed at all. It’s an unstoppable engine. The market likes it, and shareholders like it because they are rewarded. That actually touches on why we described this as ‘the ugly truth’: The ugly truth is that engagement and growth wins as a business model. It doesn’t necessarily win when it comes to what’s good for society and democracies. The ugly truth — the name actually comes from a memo that an executive wrote himself, it’s called ‘the ugly,’ where he acknowledges that yes, we want to scale, we want to be global, we want even more users, and there will be collateral damage. And that’s ugly, but also our bigger goal is important.
The question that we’re posing in this book, and that we really want readers to come away with, is: How do you feel about that ugly truth? Where the company profits from you, and you could be harmed at the same time. And there’s evidence you have been harmed as a user.
Where might Facebook be in 10 years? In 30? Do you see it surviving this kind of turmoil in the long term?
CK: It’s really hard to see Facebooks’s trajectory changing much, unless a few very core things are changed. Number one, leadership. Mark Zuckerburg — our book will show this — has really evolved as the person who was very much in control in the very beginning. He delegated a lot of responsibility to others during the good times. During tough times, he seized more control back. He’s calling all the shots on the most consequential decisions on speech, especially. On information. What kind of information is allowed on the site? Unless there’s oversight of him — which right now there isn’t, either internally or through the board or through regulation — that will not change.
The other thing that absolutely needs to change is how the company, culturally and in practice, puts growth first. There’s never a moment when the company ever steps on the brakes or pauses, even when things are going poorly. As you’ll see in the book, one of the things that very much angered officials in Washington was that amid all of the scandals — Cambridge Analytica, election interference, the former president spreading misinformation — Mark Zuckerberg released and launched a block chain currency project. It was an unregulated idea; something that could really disrupt financial systems around the globe. That just showed more of the original ‘move fast and break things’ ethos that was there in the very beginning.
Kepler’s This Is Now interview with Frenkel and Kang takes place on Thursday, July 15, at 6 p.m. Journalist-in-residence Angie Coiro will moderate the online event, with more information and tickets available on the Kepler’s website.
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