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Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the victim here
A few thoughts on the embattled Facebook CEO’s recent memo to his employees.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a note last night that he sent to employees in response to a chaotic past few weeks for the company he founded 17 years ago. The public statement is notable because, save for a few corporate blog posts and mundane testimony from an exec at a congressional hearing last week, Facebook’s C-suite has been radio silent as the company attempts to weather yet another flurry of competing crises.
The catalyst for the latest scandal was an investigative series by The Wall Street Journal published last month that revealed a litany of bombshells, chief among them: Facebook exempts high-profile users from some or all of its rules (duh!) and that the company knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, despite public claims to the contrary. As a result, Facebook has requested guidance from its Oversight Board on the program that shields high-profile accounts from shields. Additionally, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri announced last week that Facebook, which purchased Instagram in 2012, would be “pausing” development on a version of the app for young people.
The foundation of the Journal’s findings were thousands of pages of documents turned over by a whistleblower whom we now know to be Francis Haugen, a former product manager who used to work on Facebook’s civic integrity team. Haugen revealed her identity in an interview last Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Then she went on to testify in a three-hour Senate hearing yesterday that galvanized both sides of the aisle in favor of tech regulation, an almost impossible feat in this current political climate. Facebook’s communications shop spent the day attempting to diplomatically discredit Haugen’s testimony. And Zuckerberg picked up where they left off in his memo.
Zuckerberg started by explaining the technical glitch that took down the Facebook app, Instagram and WhatsApp for several hours on Monday. He said the company is debriefing to figure out how to prevent future lapses in service and that the incident put the company’s global role into perspective. “The deeper concern with an outage like this isn’t how many people switch to competitive services or how much money we lose,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But what it means for the people who rely on our services to communicate with loved ones, run their businesses or support their communities."
The 37-year-old billionaire then went on to push back against the torrent of criticism Facebook has received in the aftermath of the WSJ’s investigation and Haugen’s public appearances.
Zuckerberg said the recent coverage of Facebook is inconsistent with the company he knows:
I'm sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn't reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It's difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don't recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.
I don’t dispute Zuckerberg is concerned about the aforementioned issues. A couple of former bosses and several former colleagues work at Facebook and I’m happy to vouch on behalf of their integrity. But while Facebook often wants to focus on its intent to do well, when it’s the impact of its business and family of apps, which enables the worst parts of our economy and society to thrive, that is detrimental. And as we glean more insight from the company’s own research, I’m unsure the supposed good of enabling people to keep in touch with loved ones, market their products and services or organize their communities are worth it if it means Facebook exists as it is today.
Zuckerberg also spoke to the resources Facebook has invested in researching these issues. Again, that’s not the dispute. The tech press is actually complimentary of the company on this front. The gripe is that most of this research is kept in-house unless one of Facebook’s employees leaks it. Then it starts another crisis cycle where we focus more on what Facebook is allegedly hiding or why its products are problematic and less on how to fix the problems the research reveals. Independent researchers and reporters should be able to draw their own conclusions from the company’s data outside the scope of the news cycle and offer forward-looking recommendations and expertise. This is something I hope Congress eventually legislates instead of trusting tech companies to self-regulate.
A popular critique of Facebook is that it intentionally promotes content that triggers an emotional response from people for the sake of profit. Zuckerberg’s defense:
We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don't want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don't know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.
This misses a key point. Due to the three-headed digital advertising monster that is Facebook, Google and Amazon, businesses advertise on social apps because there are literally no approximate alternatives for marketers who rely on paid media to promote their offerings. (In fact, Garrett Sloane at AdAge published a story confirming my argument this morning.) Let me break it down this way: I prefer to shop at Trader Joe’s for my groceries but the nearest location is 45 minutes downtown while my local market is three streets over. Just because the neighborhood joint is geographically convenient doesn’t mean it’s better than TJ’s. I would just rather avoid all that comes with commuting in New York City whenever I can in the same way businesses would rather enjoy the targeting capabilities of Facebook’s cheap surveillance products over imprecise and expensive traditional channels.
Finally, Zuckerberg defers the work of solving the issues his products exacerbate to Congress:
That's why we have advocated for updated internet regulations for several years now. I have testified in Congress multiple times and asked them to update these regulations. I've written op-eds outlining the areas of regulation we think are most important related to elections, harmful content, privacy, and competition.
What he doesn’t mention though is that many of the regulations Facebook is advocating for are ones they’ve already implemented. As for the ones they’re against, Zuckerberg leaves it to his robust corps of Washington lobbyists to influence lawmakers.
To be clear, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the victim here. His privilege enabled him to build unfathomable personal wealth and unmerited global influence in a media and political environment that gave him and his contemporaries the benefit of the doubt for more than a decade. And for goodness sake, his company is still incredibly popular with people who are unaware of or uninterested in the corporate mechanisms that facilitate the apps they’re addicted to or obsessed with. He decided to pursue growth over the collective well-being as if the two could be reconciled and that’s his prerogative. But he doesn’t get to spin the debate when the consequences of his choice come to light.
We’re past the point of wondering if Facebook and its competitors will be regulated. It’s now a matter of when, especially since, as Sheera Frankel at The New York Times noted, “Republican and Democratic lawmakers are united on taking action to stop the harms caused to teenagers on Facebook” and they’ve “gotten smarter about tech.” My hope is that Facebook would innovate within boundaries that prioritize privacy and democracy instead of fighting for incremental reforms. But I’m not holding my breath.