An Ugly Truth by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang review – Facebook’s battle for domination

Russian hacking, smear campaigns and livestreamed massacres are the price of Mark Zuckerberg’s quest for connectivity, grippingly probed by two New York Times journalists

How many books are there about Facebook? I’ve lost count. Many of them belong to the genre of the “insider” story – by an early investor in the company, perhaps; or by a supposed intimate of its founder and Supreme Leader; or by an ex-employee with a bad conscience for the societal damage for which he (and it’s always a he, by the way) has been responsible; or (occasionally) by a vigorous critic of social media such as Siva Vaidhyanathan or Franklin Foer.

I’ve read most of these and so approached An Ugly Truth with a degree of scepticism on account of its subtitle: “Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination”. But this book is different. For one thing, its co-authors are not “insiders”, but a pair of experienced New York Times journalists who were members of a team nominated in 2019 for a Pulitzer prize. Much more importantly, though, they claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. So if this is an “insider” account, it’s better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre.

We’ll get to what this account reveals in a moment, but first let’s clear up the title. It comes from the header on an internal memo sent by Andrew Bosworth (AKA “Boz”), a senior Facebook executive and one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest confidants. “So we connect more people,” it says. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. 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.”

In a way, this tells you everything you need to know about Facebook. The only thing Boz omitted to mention is that the more people Facebook “connects”, the more money it makes. And the view from its HQ is that it’s still early days in the growth story. After all, Facebook currently has 2.8 billion monthly active users and there are 7.8 billion people on the planet at the moment. Which means, in the megalomaniacal view of the company’s Supreme Leader, that leaves 5 billion still to be “connected”. Only then – when every sentient being on the planet is on Facebook – will the world’s problems be solved. And if you think I’m making this up, then an inspection of some of Zuckerberg essays on his Facebook page may give you pause.

Although progress to world domination has, to date, been progressing according to plan, there have been some hiccups – or, at any rate, PR problems – on the way. In focusing their inquiry, Frenkel and Kang have largely concentrated on what’s gone on within Facebook over just four years – from the 2016 presidential election that brought Trump to power to Biden’s election in 2020.

Trump supporters storm the US Capitol in January.
Trump supporters storm the US Capitol in January. Photograph: Joel Marklund/Bildbyran/Zuma Press/Rex/Shutterstock

They had plenty of material to go on. Among other things, this period includes: Russian hacking of the Clinton campaign; its consummate exploitation of Facebook’s advertising system to disseminate disinformation and introduce chaos into public discourse; the Trump campaign’s mastery of those same systems for the same purposes; the Cambridge Analytica scandal; the smear campaign against George Soros; the way in which Facebook’s expansion into Myanmar facilitated a genocidal campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims; the livestreaming by the shooter of the Christchurch massacre in 2019; and the use of Facebook by the insurgents to plan (and livestream) the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January.

The co-authors’ exhumation of these ghastly skeletons makes for gripping as well as depressing reading. Two things in particular stand out. The first is that, in most of the cases, people within Facebook were aware of – and alarmed about – what was happening on the company’s systems, either because they had detected them or had been alerted by well-informed outsiders. And yet, when they communicated their concerns to people above them in the managerial hierarchy, nothing much happened – which possibly explains why in some cases Zuckerberg seemed to be unaware of the looming crises until it was too late to claim ignorance.

The most striking example of this is what happened when internal investigators led by the cybersecurity guru Alex Stamos uncovered the extent of Russian meddling on Facebook’s systems. Stamos’s attempts to alert his superiors to what was going on were brushed off. All mention of Russia in his draft white paper were deleted by senior staff. But as news media began to suss that something big was up, it was decided that the company’s board should be briefed on it the day before its quarterly meeting on 7 September 2017. On 6 September, therefore, Stamos gave a presentation to a delegated subcommittee of three board members. They were stunned and furious in an expletive-deleted way. “How the fuck are we only hearing about this now?” said Erskine Bowles, who had been Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. The full board meeting was equally fractious. But nothing substantive happened.

Why? Because the board members serve entirely at Zuckerberg’s pleasure. In its regular filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company sums it up nicely: “Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, chairman and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to the stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could… result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support.” Zuckerberg could fire the entire board and there is nothing that anyone could do about it.

This extraordinary document is nowhere cited in An Ugly Truth, and yet it underpins its entire narrative. One of the book’s striking revelations is that there is more anxiety inside the company than we realised. Many Facebook employees have been anguished, frustrated or angry about what their employer has been doing in its relentless quest for growth. Some have tried to alert their superiors to their concerns. But time and again the bad news hasn’t persuaded those bosses because they didn’t sync with the overriding imperative of endless corporate growth. And, as HL Mencken famously observed, it’s difficult to explain something to someone whose salary depends on not understanding it.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017.
Facebook threw ‘a lit match on to decades of simmering racial tension’ in Myanmar... Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017. Photograph: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Zuckerberg’s obsession with growth is what underpinned the Myanmar catastrophe. Facebook rolled into a country with no democratic traditions, providing connectivity for people who had never before used the internet. The company’s executives knew zilch about the country other than it was promising territory for their CEO’s cherished “next one billion” project. In entering Myanmar, Facebook had – as the book puts it – “thrown a lit match on to decades of simmering racial tension and had then turned the other way when activists pointed to the smoke slowly choking the country”. In the end, human rights officials estimated that 24,000 Rohingya were murdered and 700,000 Muslims fled to Bangladesh. And while this was going on, the inflammatory rhetoric of 18 million Facebook users that fuelled the genocide was monitored by just five native Burmese speakers, the book reports, none of whom was actually based in Myanmar.

So the “ugly truth” about Facebook is that it’s an immensely powerful corporation with a toxic business model, led by an autocratic founder who is hell-bent on world domination. A prominent critic of the company once observed that “the problem of Facebook is Facebook”. Wrong. The problem of Facebook is Zuckerberg. And the question posed by this splendid book is: what are we going to do about him?

  • An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang is published by the Bridge Street Press (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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John Naughton

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