Turns out Mark Zuckerberg really, really, really runs Facebook.
And other takeaways from the ‘Facebook Papers.’ Plus, a new profile of Lina Khan and Biden’s key hires.
Welcome to Slow Build, a newsletter on tech’s biggest questions, by me, Nancy Scola.
Because I love you good people, I’ve now read through about 45 of this week’s stories based on the ‘Facebook Papers’ — the internal documents scooped up by one-time Facebook employee Frances Haugen and eventually shared with federal regulators and some dozen-and-a-half news organizations — and am here to report back on handful of takeaways and one powerful through line.
The ‘Facebook Papers’ as an act of corporate accountability
If you’re looking for a smoking gun, it isn’t in these docs. But the materials do paint a detailed picture of how this sprawling company functions across the globe. (We’ll get in a bit to how this whole situation functioned as an act of journalism.)
Power pools at the top of Facebook, hugely — We see in the papers Mark Zuckerberg making the decision about whether to abide by a dictate from Vietnam’s ruling Communist party, a high-stakes choice perhaps not surprising to see a CEO making. Same goes, maybe, for Facebook not taking some steps to mitigate against the spread of inflaming content because Zuckerberg worried about “false positives.” But we also see him issuing verdicts on such in-the-weed matters like what color Facebook’s “I got vaccinated” badges should be. Says former Facebook Brian Boland, “The specter of Zuckerberg looms in everything the company does.” Three sources said that within the company, “there is an audience of one.”
Facebook still struggles enormously outside the U.S. — Making sense of a world that isn’t always English-speaking and where the politics are foreign is a big, big problem that Facebook hasn’t cracked yet. Responsibly navigating places like Ethiopia and Poland — the latter where Facebook’s said to have helped fuel a “social-civil war” — are beyond the company’s capacities right now. Decisions on Arabic content are made in Casablanca, meaning errors are “virtually guaranteed” beyond North Africa. AI steps in to help, but it confuses things like Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Facebook’s divided the world up into tiers to try to figure out where to best direct its resources, but some places get the short end.
Facebook seemed to lose control around the 2020 election — One internal review found that the company’s response to the claims of election fraud made by Trump and others was “piecemeal.” As the country crept towards inauguration day, the company thought it could relax a bit and rolled back some of its emergency measures, and was caught off-guard by the January 6th events at the Capitol. All that was a turning point for a lot of employees, exacerbating the sense that the company they were toiling for is a net negative on society.
The devil is in the details, again and again and again — Facebook has wrestled internally with the basics of viral-style social networking, including likes and shared — a model pioneered by the company with its decision to introduce News Feed in 2006. The company tweaks just about every aspect of the platform, including experimenting with amplifying friends in each others’ feeds to see if they grow closer. That sort of twiddling can have enormous impact; focusing on emojis reactions over likes spreads misinformation, deciding what to serve up next to a ‘conservative mom’ test user quickly ushes her into QAnon territory.
But the single biggest through line through all of the ‘Facebook Papers’? Zuckerberg, and the historic level of power he wields, the sort of power with which our institutions just don’t know how to cope. Decisions he makes affects billions of people. Even the absence of his attention is powerful, because, it becomes clear in the papers, if he isn’t interested in something happening at Facebook, it probably doesn’t.
All that gives weight to the argument of advocates who argue that the regulatory end game at the SEC or FTC or beyond is to hold Zuckerberg personally responsible, partly as a corrective to the 2008 financial crisis that left CEOs with the sense that they’re exempt from accountability.
One employee in the papers complains, “We’re FB, not some naive startup.” It’s a nice thought. But the bulk of the evidence suggests that Facebook still functions as a startup, with a startup’s reflexive deference to its founders whims and wishes. Facebook remains less a mature corporation than what the tagline on the first versions of the site said back in 2004: “a Mark Zuckerberg production.”
The ‘Facebook Papers’ as an act of journalism
The New York Times’ Ben Smith has a fascinating retelling of how Haugen navigated pulling together the ‘consortium’ of news organizations who’d be handed the Facebook Papers under a mutually agreed-to embargo.
To make this about me, it’s not too long ago that I would have been in the middle of this situation as a reporter. (My old news organization was one of the 17 participating shops.) And for a publication, the temptation to take Haugen up on her offer is huge. You really can’t say no and miss out on the kind of source-document reporting your competitors are going to be running with.
That gives Haugen and those working with her — like former Obama aide Bill Burton, who has Haugen as a client (in a stable that, for what it’s worth, also includes former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris) — the sort of leverage that of course they’re going to use. Good sources, naturally, have always had pull, especially when they come bearing original documents. But we’re arguably seeing them actively learning how to use it to most powerful effect. We saw this with Julian Assange, who told the New Yorker that he’d been dismayed by the response to Wikileaks release of military information back in 2007, “This was such a f__king fantastic leak: the Army’s force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair, and nothing.” By ‘Cablegate’ in 2010, Assange wasn’t going to make that mistake again. He and Wikileaks released those materials bit by bit, creating hashtags for each cable, and so on. Haugen is the natural heir to that legacy.
But does it, well, serve the public? I’m not so sure. As a reader, I was completely overwhelmed. No one should have to read four dozen stories to get a sense of what’s going on. That’s inhumane.
In this case, though, it gets back to the central issue raised by Zuckerberg’s role running the company: if a company’s so big that it takes 17 top news organizations to even begin to scratch the surface of its impact on the world, should it be under the near complete control of one human being? If nothing else, the ‘Facebook Papers’ push that question to center stage.
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“30 Minutes with…Lina Khan” | I have a new profile of the newish Federal Trade Commission chair out today in New York Magazine. On Friday, we’ll do a deep dive into the story, but for now, I hope you’ll give it a read.
Biden fills the roster | Biden is nominating acting Federal Communications Commissioner chair Jessica Rosenworcel to be permanent chair. It’s a bit of a surprising choice for Biden, and doesn’t really fit into the sort of progressive activist vibe of his choices for similar roles. (See Lina Khan, above.) But Rosenworcel, a former Senate staffer, had the backing of a bunch of Democratic senators, and Biden likes senators. And he’s also naming as a commissioner Gigi Sohn, who does fit into that mold, including as the one-time head of the group Public Knowledge. Biden’s also chosen to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — which we care about in part because it plays a role in broadband deployment in underserved spots in the U.S. — Alan Davidson, who can perhaps be blamed for starting the whole Silicon-Valley-comes-to-D.C. era with his opening of Google’s Washington office, the first of its kind, in 2005. And Biden wasn’t done yet! He also picked attorney Kathi Vidal to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
ICYMI: FTC has a new acting chief technologist | The Information reports that Stephanie Nguyen is now serving as acting chief technologist at the FTC, a role meant to help the agency figure out how technologies work so that it can do better oversight over companies that do get how those technologies work. Nguyen fills an opening left when Erie Meyer went over to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with one-time FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra, who’s now heading that agency. Nguyen has been a deputy CTO at the FTC.
“Where Facts Were No Match for Fear” — “Civic boosters in central Montana hoped for some federal money to promote tourism. A disinformation campaign got in the way.” (New York Times)
“Rep. Espaillat Campaign Paid Thousands to Online Influencers Who Delivered Flattering Posts” — “The bloggers’ videos and articles do not disclose their financial ties to the Bronx and Manhattan congressman — exploiting a legal gray area as paid social media influencers play a growing role in campaigns nationally. Council candidate allies of Espaillat followed suit.” (The City)