Review: Why Facebook can never fix itself

The Facebook engineer was curious to know why his date didn’t reply to his messages. Perhaps there was a simple explanation – perhaps she was ill or on vacation.

So at 10 p.m. one night at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, he rolled out her Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and began digging through her personal data. Her politics, lifestyle, interests – even her real-time location.

The engineer would be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who inappropriately misused their access to company data, a privilege that was then available to everyone who worked at Facebook, regardless of their job or seniority. The vast majority of the 51 were just like him: men are looking for information about the women they are interested in.

In September 2015, after Alex Stamos, the new chief security officer, brought the issue to Mark Zuckerberg’s attention, the CEO ordered a system overhaul to restrict employee access to user data. It was a rare victory for Stamos, as he convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame, not individual behavior.

This is how it begins ugly truth, a new book about Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporter Shira Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. With Frenkel’s expertise in cybersecurity, Kang’s expertise in technology and regulatory policy, and their deep resources, the duo offer a compelling account of Facebook’s years spanning the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Stamos is no longer so lucky. Issues drawn from Facebook’s business model would only escalate in the ensuing years, but when Stamos discovered more egregious problems, including Russian interference in the US election, he was pushed to have Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg face inconvenient truths. Once he left, the leadership continued to refuse to address a whole host of deeply troubling problems, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Myanmar genocide, and the outbreak of misinformation.

Authors Cecilia Kang and Shira Frenkel

Beowulf Sheehan

Frenkel and Kang argue that Facebook’s problems today are not the product of a company that has lost its way. Instead, they are part of his very design, built on top of Zuckerberg’s narrow worldview, the neglected privacy culture he developed, and the staggering ambitions he chased with Sandberg.

When the company was still young, perhaps this lack of insight and imagination could be justified. But since then, Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s decisions have shown that growth and revenue outperform everything else.

In a chapter titled Cross Country Corporation, for example, the authors recount how the leadership attempted to bury the extent of Russian election interference on the podium from the US intelligence community, Congress, and the American public. They monitored multiple attempts by Facebook’s security team to publish details of what they found, and carefully selected data to downplay the severity and partisan nature of the problem. When Stamos proposed redesigning the company’s organization to prevent a recurrence of the problem, other leaders dismissed the idea as “disturbing” and focused their resources on controlling the public narrative and keeping regulators at bay.

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