An Ugly Truth by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang

An Ugly Truth by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang

For a long time now, Facebook has had a serious problem with some of its users – myself included – a lack of trust. It’s hard to put a finger on why that is exactly, and why they should be viewed as any worse than, say, Google.

Perhaps it’s the way they introduce new features based purely on internal testing showing that dwell times increase, and not considering what they are making public?

Or perhaps it’s the way that they have introduced new privacy features by essentially turning them off, and then making you dive into ever more complex menu systems where users must re-engage these features to lock down elements of their accounts?

Or maybe it’s the way that they track you around the internet and know an enormous amount about you even when you’re not using Facebook?

As I say, it’s not as though Google is completely blameless in all of these either. But somehow Facebook has rubbed many people up the wrong way. There hasn’t really been a “Delete Google” campaign in the same way as there has for Facebook.

In An Ugly Truth, New York Times writers Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King take a close look at the recent history of Facebook – from the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian influencers and a myriad of other stories.

None of these are new exactly, but through interviewing over 400 people, many of whom still work for Facebook, they’ve got the inside track of what was going within Facebook. And frankly, it’s a devastating picture.

It tells a story of a company that is basically run top-down by Mark Zuckerberg, their CEO taking ever more hands-on approach to even parts of the business that he had let Sheryl Sandberg, his number two run. The portrait we get here of Zuckerberg is of someone who still sees everything through the lens of a technical challenge. Fake accounts and pages being set-up? We can defeat them via AI. In interviews, the authors have talked about Facebook’s history being a case of watching Mark Zuckerberg grow up – all the time having colossal power that he probably doesn’t really understand.

Sandberg comes out of this looking pretty bad too. She’s the person who built up Facebook’s dominance (with Google) in the digital ad business, and yet she doesn’t seem to stand up to Zuckerberg even when things are clearly going wrong. Instead, she gets pushed out to defend his stance. While she won plaudits for her Lean In book and her corporate history at that time, she seems to have lost much of that good will through her lack of pushing back. Of course, Facebook, like so many Silicon Valley companies, is structured in such a way as the CEO/founder has complete control of the shareholder voting rights, and can completely determine the direction the company goes. The board, in a traditional sense, is pretty useless.

An Ugly Truth paints a picture of a company where the top-two surround themselves with people who tell them basically what they want to hear, and think like them.

And Facebook seems to be a company that is more concerned about its public image than it is about actually fixing some of the problems that are endemic on its platforms.

It’s not obvious that everything is simple to fix. Zuckerberg made a big play about all Facebook’s messaging apps (Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) being completely end-to-end encrypted. On the one hand, with governments and others wanting, often illegal access to citizens’ messages, this is a good thing. On the other hand, it allows criminals, racists and others free reign to use the apps. Facebook is less able to help law enforcement if they can’t decrypt messages themselves.

The fundamental issue is that Facebook seems to have been unwilling to consider the outcomes of the decisions it makes. A “cool” new feature might have unintended consequences, and Facebook just doesn’t think about those. Then, when they happen, it won’t face up to them or address them.

As Facebook fights to stay ahead in social media, with new players like Tik Tok meaning that Facebook loses market share in some segments (although it remains vastly dominant, and is the internet in some locations), it is going to have to change how it behaves. It also feels like governments are slowly, finally coming around to seeing the dominance and the power that Facebook has, and are wondering if they have too much dominance. Are they the Standard Oil of this decade?

An Ugly Truth is compelling and utterly essential read. I raced through it. Highly recommended!