A review of the 2021 book “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination” by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The truth is far more complex.
Writing this review didn’t come easy. I spent five years helping to mitigate and solve Facebook’s most thorny problems. When the book was published, I perceived it to be an attack on Facebook orchestrated by the New York Times, a stock-listed company and direct competitor in the attention and advertising market. Today, I know that my perception then was compromised by Meta’s relentless, internal corporate propaganda.
Similar to Chaos Monkeys, An Ugly Truth tells a story that is limited to available information at the time. The book claims to have had unprecedented access to internal, executive leadership directly reporting to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. It is focused on the time period roughly between 2015 and 2020; arguably it was Facebook’s most challenging time. Despite a constant flow of news reporting about Facebook’s shortcomings, the book, for the most part of it, remains focused on the executive leadership decisions that got the company into hot waters in the first place. Across 14 chapters, well-structured and perfectly written, the authors build a case of desperation: in an increasingly competitive market environment, Facebook needs to innovate and increase its user statistics to beat earnings to satisfy shareholders. Yet, the pursuit of significance infiltrated the better judgment of Facebook’s executive leadership team and eventually led to drowning out the rational voices, the protective and concerned opinions of genuine leadership staff over the self-serving voices of staff only interested to progress at any cost.
To illustrate this point, the authors tell the story of former Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos, who persistently called out data privacy and security shortcomings:
Worst of all, Stamos told them (Zuckerberg and Sandberg), was that despite firing dozens of employees over the last eighteen months for abusing their access, Facebook was doing nothing to solve or prevent what was clearly a systemic problem. In a chart, Stamos highlighted how nearly every month, engineers had exploited the tools designed to give them easy access to data for building new products to violate the privacy of Facebook users and infiltrate their lives. If the public knew about these transgressions, they would be outraged […]
His calls, however, often went unanswered, or, worse invited other executive leadership threatened by Stamos’ findings to take hostile measures.
By December, Stamos, losing patience, drafted a memo suggesting that Facebook reorganize its security team so that instead of sitting on their own, members were embedded across the various parts of the company. […] Facebook had decided to take his advice, but rather than organizing the new security team under Stamos, Facebook’s longtime vice president of engineering, Pedro Canahuati, was assuming control of all security functions. […] The decision felt spiteful to Stamos: he advised Zuckerberg to cut engineers off from access to user data. No team had been more affected by the decision than Canahuati’s, and as a result, the vice president of engineering told colleagues that he harbored a grudge against Stamos. Now he would be taking control of an expanded department at Stamos’s expense.
Many more of those stories would never be told. Engineers and other employees, much smaller fish than Stamos, who raised ethical concerns of security and integrity were routinely silenced, ignored, and “managed out” – Facebook’s preferred method of dealing with staff refusing to drink the kool-aid and toe the line. Throughout the book, the authors maintain a neutral voice yet it becomes very clear how difficult the decisions were for executive leadership. It seemed as though leading Facebook is the real-world equivalent of Kobayashi Maru – an everyday, no-win scenario. Certainly, I can sympathize with the pressure Mark, Sheryl, and others must have felt during those times.
Take the case of Donald John Trump, the 45th President of the United States. His Facebook Page has a reach of 34 million followers (at the time of this writing). On January 6, 2021, his account actively instigated his millions of followers to view Vice President Mike Pence as the reason for his lost bid for reelection. History went on to witness the attack on the United States Capitol. Democracy and our liberties were under attack on that day. And how did Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg respond on behalf of Facebook? First, silence. Second, indecision. Shall Trump remain on the platform? Are we going to suspend his account temporarily? Indefinitely? Eventually, Facebook’s leadership punted the decision to the puppet regime of the Oversight Board, who returned the decision power due to a lack of existing policies that would govern such a situation. When everybody was avoiding the headlights, Facebook’s executive leadership acted like a deer. Yes, Zuckerberg’s philosophy on speech has evolved over time. Trump challenged this evolution.
Throughout Facebook’s seventeen-year history, the social network’s massive gains have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and safety and the integrity of democratic systems. […] And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission is to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.
The book contains many more interesting stories. There were a wealth of internal leaks to desperately influence and return Facebook’s leadership back to its original course. There were the infamous Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which highlighted the political affiliations and ideologies of Facebook’s executive leader Joel Kaplan, who weathered the sexual harassment allegations against Brett Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey-Ford despite an outrage of Facebook’s female employees. Myanmar saw horrific human rights abuses enabled by and perpetrated through the platform. The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Bay Area representative since 1987, Nancy Pelosi was humiliated when Facebook fumbled to remove a deepfake video about a speech of hers that was manipulated to make it sound slurred. And the list goes on and on and on and on.
The book is worth reading. The detail and minutiae afforded to report accurately and convincingly are rich and slow-burning. That being said, Facebook has been dying since 2015. Users leave the platform and delete Facebook. While Instagram and WhatsApp pull the company’s advertising revenue for the time being with stronger performances abroad, it is clear that the five years of the executive leadership of Facebook covered in this book point towards an undefiable conclusion: it failed.
NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed the authors Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang on Fresh Air. It further demonstrates the dichotomy of writing about the leadership at one of the most influential and controversial corporations in the world. You can listen to the full episode here.