I’m sure most of you are aware of the existence of a bombshell NYTimes article documenting the strife within the company over the last two years and its internal efforts to neutralize the many controversies that have swirled around it. I’m also just as sure that many of you have only read the first few paragraphs of the NYTimes article because it’s very, very long, and it turns out, the inner workings of Facebook aren’t nearly as interesting as whatever Donald Trump’s latest rant is about. It’s something of a slog — a well researched, strongly sourced, and damning slog, but a slog nonetheless.
So, here’s the TL;DR for those of you who only made it 30 percent of the way through before you finished eating your cinnamon roll and returned those spreadsheets you’re working on or the game of Fortnite you’re playing or the drunk hour of the Today show (skip to the last few paragraphs if you only want to know about the super shady sh*t).
Most of it is not surprising. Facebook reacted to scandals like privacy breaches, Russian infiltration, and Cambridge Analytica as most corporations might: They denied it was a problem (even though they knew it was a problem internally), then they downplayed the problems, and then they sought to deflect. Instead of taking responsibility for the ease in which their platform spreads hate, they sought to throw other tech companies — like Apple or Google — under the bus, claiming they were just as bad. (This is probably true).
Meanwhile, when Congresspeople from both sides of the aisle came at Facebook, Facebook lobbied against any efforts to place regulations upon the social media platform. It did so with some success thanks in part to cover provided by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is the single biggest beneficiary of contributions from Facebook and its employees. They were also able to at least briefly quiet their fiercest critic, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (although, Klobuchar was ultimately instrumental in getting legislation passed to ensure that the people who advertise on Facebook were properly labeled).
Honestly, most of the piece simply details the ways in which Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others spent two years scrambling to save its reputation as user growth slowed and the stock price dipped. It’s the sort of stuff you’d see in any piece about a major crisis inside a corporation.
There was also a moment before much of this began where Facebook could have nipped this in the bud. When Trump launched his presidential bid and claimed that Muslim immigrants and refugees posed a danger to America and suggested a total Muslim ban, Zuckerberg himself suggested that Trump may have violated the platform’s policy on hate speech. There was serious talk about shutting down Trump’s account. Ultimately, however, Zuckerberg kicked the issue to others, who decided that Trump was an important public figure and that shutting down his account would have stoked conservative backlash.
If only they’d gone the other way, arguably none of us would be in this mess, including Facebook.
For the most part, however, all of this seems like Standard Operating Procedures for a behemoth corporation in trouble. I am not naive; this is how corporations operate. It can be insidious and shitty and unethical as politicians and lobbyist from both sides of the aisle operate in their own best interests (instead of the best interests of users) but I expect that all the other major tech companies behave similarly.
But this is where Facebook crossed a line: In endeavoring to deflect criticism of its company, Facebook hired a conservative consulting firm, Definers Public Affairs, to undermine critics of Facebook. Definers even has its own news outlet, NTK Network, which is often picked up by other conservative outlets like Breitbart, which spread NTK Network pieces critical of anti-Facebook activists.
Some of those activists organizations received funding from George Soros, so Facebook hired this conservative firm to basically link all these activist organizations with Soros. In other words, use the anti-Semitic sentiments against Soros against its critics. However, Facebook played both sides by casting activist organizations like the civil rights group Color of Change as anti-Semitic. In short, Facebook used anti-Semitism as both a defense and a weapon against activist groups, and even for a massive corporation, it’s low to stir up anti-Semitism in an effort to save its own ass.
Color for Change has since called out Facebook for these activities:
“Facebook’s response to our campaign, which challenged them to improve their platform and create safe conditions for Black people and other marginalized groups, was to fan the flames of anti-Semitism. By suggesting to reporters that Color Of Change is acting as the puppet of Mr. Soros merely because he is one of our many funders, they have given oxygen to the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the white nationalist Trump base.”A spokesperson for George Soros has also taken the social media platform to task:
It’s been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform. To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale. These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with. This is reprehensible, and an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance. But at bottom, this is not about George Soros or the foundations. Your methods threaten the very values underpinning our democracy.
It’s one thing for Trump, or the Russians, or Breitbart to use Facebook to weaponize hate and fear against its enemies, but this may be on another level: Facebook manufactured and then weaponized hatred and fear against its critics to save itself from criticism and regulation so that others could continue to use the platform to weaponize hatred and fear against its enemies.
In other words, Facebook is a toxic disaster.
(For the record, after the NYTimes report came out, Facebook fired the conservative consulting firm, Definers Public Affairs, which to me sounds like an admission of guilt.)
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