An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang

The big frustration with the world, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg, is that most people aren’t you. So you build a social network, and annoyingly people don’t quite use it as Mark Zuckerberg would. Even Harvard students aren’t all Mark Zuckerberg, and the general public certainly aren’t. Man, it’s annoying. Repeatedly, they fail to have your best interests at heart.

Eventually, you begin to perceive the problem. So you employ a very impressive woman called Sheryl Sandberg. Her main value to your company is that she is completely not Mark Zuckerberg, but there is also a really annoying problem with her, which is the same thing. This makes you ignore her, even while your company swells, expanding the problem of people not being Mark Zuckerberg on to a global scale.

Now you’re having to deal with Donald Trump, Cambridge Analytica, Russian intelligence and the Burmese military junta, and it turns out they have all been doing horrible things you never anticipated, for reasons I feel we’ve discussed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” you wail at your staff, whereupon they say they did, but you didn’t listen. Because they’re not Mark Zuckerberg and you are.

This, pretty much, is the grand arc of An Ugly Truth, which makes a decent stab at being the definitive history of Facebook to date. Its authors are New York Times reporters, and the book is drawn from first-hand testimonies, mostly of anonymous former staffers. It makes for a good read, even if some passages do read as though they have passed through more lawyers than a glass of London tap water has through people.

The Good Ol’ Days

Zuckerberg, at first, is the wunderkind. He blazes through Harvard, he launches Facebook, he turns down a billion dollars from Yahoo because he thinks he can do better. Silicon Valley is a new world where people who are already billionaires go for pizza in flipflops, and he fits right in. Although he is already worth gazillions, his Palo Alto flat contains only a futon mattress and a table with two chairs. At one point the founders of Google and their chief executive pop round for a meeting. One of them sits on the bed and another on the floor.

Facebook is growing and growing, but making no money. That’s where Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008, comes in. She’s another sort of human being altogether. Fifteen years older than Zuckerberg, she has worked in Washington. She also wears suits with huge shoulder pads and says things like, “I was put on this planet to scale organizations,” which definitely makes her sound fun at parties.

Her brand of power feminism and Zuck’s geek army are not an easy fit. A few years earlier, one rare female Facebook employee had complained to the founder after a male coworker reportedly said “I want to put my teeth in your ass” to her in the office. “What does that even mean?” pondered Zuckerberg, to the employee, who was “struck by his callowness”.

Fifteen years older than Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg wears suits with huge shoulder pads and says things like, “I was put on this planet to scale organizations.”

Sandberg swiftly develops a reputation for identifying favorite women around the company, but as one employee recalls, they’re always the ones who “came to work with gym bags or yoga bags and blown-out hair”. The programming side of things stays smirkingly smelly and male, and the company divides between “Sheryl people” and “Mark people”. And global sanity and democracy, thereafter, tumbles into the chasm between the two.

This starts, probably, with the introduction of Facebook’s News Feed in 2006. Until then, the only way to know what somebody on the site was up to was to go to their profile and look. The News Feed turns everything on its head, scraping data and funneling it to you, according to whatever the algorithm reckons you’ll care about.

Not everybody, though, wants their relationship status updates to be blared out as news. Within two days, 7 per cent of Facebook users have joined a group called Students Against Facebook News Feed. In doing so, however, they are perfectly illustrating the News Feed’s power because they only know about the anti-News Feed group because the News Feed algorithm has decided it’s their sort of thing.

There is something fascinating in looking back at these early misadventures with data, not only because they set the tone for what was to follow, but also because they show just how clueless even the tech illuminati were about exactly what people would stand for. One crashing misstep, for example, came with Facebook Beacon, which gathered people’s activity even from other sites — shopping, media, whatever — and bunged it on the News Feed as advertising.

“Nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend,” was how Zuckerberg put it to ad executives. The uproar was immediate and huge, and the feature disappeared. Yet the point had been absorbed that what people minded was the open publication of their data rather than its collection. So by being more opaque, the company learned, it could get away with almost anything.

Data (Nose-)Diving

From then on, every big Facebook disaster basically involved the misuse of data in ways that Zuckerberg hadn’t anticipated and which nobody could see until it was too late. This happened, for example, with 52 Facebook employees who were sacked in 18 months for using their engineer privileges to stalk women they liked. It happened with Cambridge Analytica, which obtained the data of almost 90 million people. It also happened with Russian spies, who circulated pre-election misinformation by behaving exactly like conventional advertisers and political enthusiasts, just with different motives.

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang’s Russia chapter is one of the most granular in the book, yet it remains quite hard to comprehend exactly what happened. We learn that Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security, began to worry that something bad was happening in March 2016, yet a year later the company is still struggling to present evidence about what actually did. “Oh f***, how did we miss this?” Zuckerberg reportedly says, much, much later, with shades of “if only Comrade Stalin knew”. Eventually, belatedly, the company starts hunting for adverts bought in Russia or paid for in roubles, which rather makes you wonder what the hell they had been doing until then.

If Russia is damaging, Myanmar is devastating. Facebook hit the country the moment smartphones were allowed in, much like smallpox hit the Native Americans. For Zuckerberg it was an exciting new market, all the more so because it penetrated China’s sphere of influence. Never once does it seem to have occurred to Facebook that the Burmese might not behave like Americans, or even that the company had any particular responsibility to pay attention. Way back in 2013, activists began warning Facebook of surging fake news and anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2014 one was so concerned that he even visited the company in California.

Yet Facebook botched everything, largely through uninterest. They introduced stickers by which users could flag harmful speech, but a bug made the algorithms treat them as “likes”, meaning the posts circulated further. They set up a Facebook group by which Burmese activists could flag up incitement, but then stopped replying to it, even while people were being killed. Eventually it emerged that the company had only one Burmese-speaking employee. In 2018, five years after those first warnings, the UN criticized Facebook for playing a role in genocide.

Meanwhile, back home, the company drifts towards pariah status; blamed for the election of Trump while also loathed by conservatives for liberal bias. Staff are ashamed, and the best graduates no longer want to work there. By 2019 Zuck is speaking to woke students at Georgetown University and claiming that the background to Facebook’s mission of connecting people had been a desire to facilitate activism against the Iraq war. In fact, note the authors, acidly, “the platform was widely understood to have begun with a project to rate hot Harvard girls”.

Zuckerberg also gets slaughtered online for mounting a free speech defense of his creation via the thoroughly unwise example of why Facebook won’t ban Holocaust denial. There’s a logic to that, but today’s students aren’t Mark Zuckerberg, either, and they hold that sort of logic in contempt. He made them who they are, and he still doesn’t get it. It’s like he’s gone from too young to too old without any notable period of being the right age in the middle.

The Facebook story of course isn’t over, which makes this thoroughly engaging book end a little unsatisfyingly. As things stand, the company has few political friends, with calls for break-up and regulation coming from both sides of the spectrum. Recently, it created an Oversight Board to make decisions about content, which I suppose you might see as a belated realization that not being Mark Zuckerberg has its advantages. I could have done with more on exactly where it is now; on the arrival of Nick Clegg, and the sheer hypocrisy of his role lobbying for soft regulation while Zuck works hard to undermine the efficacy of any that might be possible.

I could also have done with a bit more analysis of what, in the end, it has all been for. This export of mania, this breaking of the world, this exponential amplification of everything bad about all of us. Why this hunger to connect, to soak up data, to dominate, when every bit of the wealth and power to which it leads seems to hold no interest for him? In The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin put it all down to not getting into a Harvard gentleman’s club, but that seems unlikely. I have never understood it. Although, being Mark Zuckerberg, maybe Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t either.

Hugo Rifkind is a U.K.-based writer