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With scrutiny of Big Tech intensifying every single week, an ambitious new book is measuring Facebook’s missteps and miseries. As the title indicates, it’s not pretty:
“An Ugly Truth” is the name of the book, co-authored by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, both of whom report for the NYT. The book comes out on Tuesday. As I perused an early copy, I was struck by the vastness of the story. Facebook is, as Kang and Frenkel write, an “unstoppable profit-making machine,” affecting all of Earth, from the US to Myanmar. The authors have produced a valuable record of what went wrong, when, where, why, specifically in the last five years.
“No Filter” author Sarah Frier, who was tasked with reviewing “An Ugly Truth” for The Times, says the book documents a clear pattern: “The social media behemoth does as little as possible to prevent disasters from happening, then feebly attempts to avoid blame and manage public appearances.” That’s why the back cover of the book cleverly lists the company’s apologias over the years: “I’m sorry.” “We need to do better.” “We need to do a better job.”
The authors conclude that “even if the company undergoes a radical transformation in the coming years, that change is unlikely to come from within.” Why? Because “the algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.”
Key quotes from the book
— The narrative focuses on both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, as this excerpt in the NYT illustrates. Together, “they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth… and entirely deliberate in its design.”
— From the prologue: “Zuckerberg’s three greatest fears, according to a former senior Facebook executive, were that the site would be hacked, that his employees would be physically hurt, and that regulators would one day break up his social network.”
— The first chapter opens with an engineer at Facebook abusing his access to users’ private info to snoop on a woman who had ghosted him after one date. Numerous engineers were caught doing so with their work laptops — and were fired. But “it was unknown how many others had gone undetected.” The Telegraph has an extract from this chapter of the book…
— Facebook security experts were alarmed about FB posts from “domestic extremists” in the run-up to January 6. Some FB execs “floated getting Zuckerberg to call Trump to find out what the president would say” at his rally. “They ultimately decided against the move, out of concern that the conversation would likely leak to the press. It could make Facebook complicit in whatever Trump did that day.”
“The ultimate takedown”
“This is a book intended to make you outraged at Facebook,” Frier wrote in her review. “But if you’ve read anything about the company in recent years, you probably already are. Frenkel and Kang faced the challenge of unearthing new and interesting material about one of the most heavily debated communication tools of our modern age. More than 400 interviews later, they’ve produced the ultimate takedown via careful, comprehensive interrogation of every major Facebook scandal. ‘An Ugly Truth’ provides the kind of satisfaction you might get if you hired a private investigator to track a cheating spouse: It confirms your worst suspicions and then gives you all the dates and details you need to cut through the company’s spin.”
When I told a company spokesperson that I was writing about the book’s findings, I received this sharp-elbowed statement in response: “There have been 367 books published on Facebook, each claiming novel insight into how we operate. It seems this one is not only a rehash of history but relies on anecdotes supplied by mostly unnamed critics.”
I can only think of a handful of books about Facebook, but that number, 367, is quite close to the number of sources Kang and Frenkel say they had…
About their access
In the preamble, the authors say they conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with execs, current and former employees, family members, friends, classmates, investors, advisers, and others. “While Zuckerberg and Sandberg initially told their communications staff that they wanted to make sure their perspectives were conveyed in this book, they refused repeated requests for interviews,” the authors write. “On three occasions, Sandberg invited us to off-the-record conversations in Menlo Park and New York, with the promise that those conversations would lead to longer interviews for the record. When she learned about the critical nature of some of our reporting, she cut off direct communication. Apparently the unvarnished account of the Facebook story did not align with her vision of the company and her role as its second-in-command. Zuckerberg, we were told, had no interest in participating.”
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