What is the price of being connected? Most of us, dependent on the internet for work, leisure, and everything in between, have reconciled ourselves to the daily, hourly intrusion into our lives and minds by web browsers, search engines and social media algorithms. If you think too deeply about it, you may feel a sense of drowning panic, and it feels smarter not to do that because what’s the alternative, really? So we put a few ad blockers in place, use the browser’s incognito mode when we remember and virtuously remove social media apps from our phones, resolving to use only the desktop sites.
How did we get here? That’s what Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, award-winning tech journalists at The New York Times, uncover in their new book, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle For Domination. The title comes from a startling and unapologetic truth bomb dropped by Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, currently Facebook’s head of augmented and virtual reality and creator of the game-changing Facebook News Feed, in a memo shared with employees in 2016. “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.” What Boz left unsaid was that “connecting people” isn’t just a generous and altruistic goal for the company, it is what allows it to rake in billions of dollars.
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In the early chapters, Kang and Frenkel dive into the period between Facebook’s inception and the 2016 US presidential election, parsing events and decisions that may have seemed minor at the time but ended up having an outsize impact not only on the way the company would shape up but on the real world—from choices made that would allow for the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In subsequent chapters, they tackle the way Facebook, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg have, despite many attempts by governments and regulators to control its influence, evaded prosecution and interference, and how the company’s leadership has consistently shut down efforts to plug leaky holes, even by employees and teams that were given the mandate to find those holes in the first place.
An Ugly Truth follows in the footsteps of books like Steven Levy’s Facebook and Sarah Frier’s No Filter: The Inside Story Of Instagram, both of which were published last year, but it is different in the way it focuses on what went on inside Facebook and the dynamics that allowed bad decisions to be enabled and encouraged. The authors conducted over 400 interviews with people associated with Facebook, including former and current employees (many of whom chose to remain anonymous) to understand how at each potential turning point, the company ultimately prioritised growth over moral responsibility.
The one must-read portion is chapter 7, Company Over Country, which details efforts made in 2016 by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, to direct attention to the way Russian hackers were using the platform to spread misinformation in the US, destabilise government and influence political outcomes. It was a crucial, devastating investigation—but the predominant feeling among the Facebook leadership was “why did you have to dig this up?”
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“Stamos’s team had uncovered information that no one, including the U.S. government, had previously known. But at Facebook, being proactive was not always appreciated,” write Kang and Frenkel. “By investigating what Russia was doing, Alex had forced us to make decisions about what we were going to publicly say. People weren’t happy about that,” one executive told the authors. “He had taken it upon himself to uncover a problem. That’s never a good look,” another said.
Ultimately, this book is an indictment of the way certain global corporations are being run today; of the soft aggression that may have replaced the hard hostility of a previous generation but is nevertheless just as harmful and toxic, and of unchecked, late-stage capitalism,which impacts all of humanity in the shrunken world created, ironically, by companies like Facebook.