The Facebook engineer was eager to find out why his date hadn’t responded to his messages. Maybe there was a simple explanation: maybe she was sick or on vacation.
So, at 10 p.m. one evening at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, he posted his Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and began to view his personal data. His politics, his lifestyle, his interests, even his real-time location.
The engineer would be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who had abused their access to company data, a privilege that was then available to everyone who worked at Facebook, regardless of their function or seniority. . The vast majority of the 51 were like him: men looking for information about the women they were 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, one in which he convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame, rather than individual behavior.
So begins An ugly truth, a new book on Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. Using Frenkel’s cybersecurity expertise, Kang’s tech and regulatory policy expertise, and their deep sources, the duo provide a compelling account of Facebook’s years spanning the 2016 election and 2020.
Stamos would no longer have that chance. The problems that stemmed from Facebook’s business model would only worsen in the years that followed, but as Stamos discovered more glaring problems, including Russian interference in the US election, he was kicked out for putting Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in the face of disturbing truths. Once he left, the leadership continued to refuse to tackle a host of deeply troubling issues, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Myanmar genocide, and widespread covid disinformation.
Frenkel and Kang argue that Facebook’s problems today are not the product of a company that has gone astray. Instead, they’re part of his very design, built on top of Zuckerberg’s narrow worldview, the culture of carefree privacy he cultivated, and the staggering ambitions he pursued with Sandberg.
When the company was still small, such a lack of foresight and imagination could perhaps be excused. But since then, the decisions of Zuckerberg and Sandberg have shown that growth and income trumps everything else.
In a chapter titled “Company Over Country,” for example, the authors recount how the leaders attempted to bury the extent of Russian electoral interference on the platform by the US intelligence community, Congress. and the American public. They censored multiple attempts by Facebook’s security team to publish details of what they found and selected the data to downplay the severity and partisan nature of the problem. When Stamos proposed an overhaul of the company’s organization to prevent the problem from happening again, other executives dismissed the idea as “alarmist” and focused their resources on taking control of public discourse and remote control of the regulators.