The book “Inside Facebook” provides an insight into one of the largest companies in the world. In an interview, the authors report on how the machinery of the Internet corporation works.
Today, Tuesday, sees the publication of the book “Inside Facebook. The Ugly Truth” by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. The two authors are reporters for the “New York Times” and have been reporting on the social media company for years. For their book, they conducted interviews with more than 400 people, most of them managers, former and current employees, investors and consultants of Facebook.
The result is a unique inside view of the secretive company: the book offers a whole new perspective on many of the group’s crucial forks in the road and crises. t-online was able to read the book in advance and talk to the two reporters about it.
t-online: A few days ago, a reporter wrote that he had received an internal memo from Facebook management in which employees were explicitly warned about your book. It was expected to make headlines for several weeks. Is the company afraid of your book?
Sheera Frenkel: You know, actually they have no reason to be afraid of our book. We went through an incredibly thorough fact-checking process with Facebook. We call it a “no surprises process.” We presented them with every scene, every detail, and gave them a chance to respond. They had a chance to correct things – and I will note here that they didn’t really correct much.
So where did the discomfort on Facebook’s part come from?
Frenkel: Facebook is absolutely used to controlling its messages. Anything that happens without their control and ability to influence makes them uncomfortable. I think it’s difficult for them to know that Cecilia and I had access to hundreds of sources within the company who were willing to talk to us without a PR person sitting by and directing the responses.
Now the crude “Facebook is evil” complex is a thoroughly familiar narrative, you’re also not the first to write a critical book about the social media giant. What can your book contribute or retell in this matter?
Cecilia Kang: Well, we believe and hope that our book will really bring readers closer to the company, make them understand better how exactly this Facebook machinery works, both as a technology and as a business model. And we hope it makes people understand better than ever before the impact that leadership has on the direction of the company. But also that that leadership has shown patterns of behavior that are concerning. I think when you look at those patterns of behavior as a whole, it has a very different impact than the individual news stories of one crisis following the next. And that’s exactly why we were convinced that we had to write a book.
Just flipping through your book briefly, at first glance you see a lot of stories that you might also have followed in the news over the past few years: Cambridge Analytica, Russian hackers meddling in the 2016 U.S. election campaign via Facebook, and, of course, Facebook’s struggle in dealing with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s toxic remarks. But then reading your book, it becomes clear that you often tell the familiar stories from an entirely new perspective, an inside view of the corporation – a mosaic of insider voices that you’ve pieced together from hundreds of interviews with former and still-active Facebook employees. In retrospect, what new aspect or or nuance of these actually well-known stories surprised you the most?
Frenkel: In some ways, we had been told reporters that Facebook had been warned in advance about things like Russian interference in the U.S. election, or even what was going on in Myanmar.
They refer to allegations by U.N. experts that unfiltered hate speech and incitement to violence, especially on Facebook, is partly responsible for the violent displacement of the Rohingya.
Frenkel: As a reporter, I was personally shocked. While working on the Myanmar chapter, Cecilia and I would sometimes call each other in disbelief at how many warnings Facebook kept receiving. “If you don’t do something, it will end in genocide”: surely you can’t get a clearer warning than that! And yet Facebook has not acted, has continued to leave only one Burmese-speaking moderator in charge of a country where hundreds of different languages are spoken. Even now, as I tell this, I wonder why they didn’t act differently and how different things might be in Myanmar today if Facebook had.
Kang: I think through our reports, it has become apparent that what we had previously only suspected is actually true. Publicly, it was always, “We didn’t know we were supposed to be looking for Russian interference, we were just looking for hacking and phishing attempts.” But there were real warnings of the real threat much earlier. Clearly, there is a pattern of warning after warning after warning – and no response from top management.
One of the most interesting characters in the course of your book is Facebook’s co-chief executive Sheryl Sandberg. She is considered the business brains and number two of the corporation. However, her shine seems to have suffered greatly in recent years – partly because she doesn’t seem to agree with all of the group’s decisions. How has her role evolved?
Kang: With Sheryl Sandberg, you absolutely see her role evolving – and you see her role being challenged and changed whenever crises happen. During the Trump years – and that’s part of the reason why we focused on that period – all the existing problems within the platform really came to light. Mark Zuckerberg then took on greater responsibility within the company and her role changed. Sandberg disagreed with many things, especially when it came to free speech – such as the manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the issue of Holocaust denial.
Facebook had refused to remove a maliciously doctored video of Nancy Pelosi in the summer of 2020 at Mark Zuckerberg’s personal decision, citing freedom of speech. Elsewhere, Zuckerberg himself had stated that he also did not want to block Holocaust denial on his platform, as this was also free speech. Sandberg would have liked to handle the situations differently?
Kang: Yes, in some other cases as well. But she wasn’t able to change Zuckerberg’s mind. And that surprised us: her influence and power within Facebook was limited. That reinforced for us once again the impression that this is a company that is directed in so many ways by one person: Mark Zuckerberg. He was the co-founder and he remains the most important and powerful person in the company. He structured the company and the company capital to that effect, and culturally everything revolves around Zuckerberg as well. Within the company, you also see this change in the dynamic between Sandberg and Zuckerberg, because she was the public face of Facebook in so many ways.
So is Sandberg out the window at Facebook?
Kang: She still remains very powerful. And that’s for one reason: She runs the business – and it continues to run very, very successfully. It’s a company with a trillion-dollar market value and $85 billion in revenue. The business is thriving. But so many of her original duties are no longer just her responsibility. They’ve since been distributed to others, often directly to Mark Zuckerberg.
When Sandberg joined the company, she was the “adult” in the company. In the meantime, the relationship between the two tops has evolved and changed. And we’ve also seen Mark Zuckerberg grow up before our eyes. He’s no longer the college kid, he’s no longer young – he’s 37. Now we also see how he drafts corporate rules on the fly and how Sandberg is sometimes forced to react to them. You see in Sandberg great power, great fallibility, you can see great intentions and also a willful turning a blind eye to a lot of things. That makes her very exciting as a character because she’s very complicated.
In your book, it sounds as if what was once a love match between the two has now become a dysfunctional marriage. What do you think, is divorce imminent?
Frenkel: Many people wonder whether Sandberg will leave Facebook – but only she and Mark Zuckerberg really know. But it should be very difficult for her to leave Facebook like this, because it would be seen as a defeat and a career low. It’s also worth noting that last Thursday, just hours after the first excerpts from our book appeared in The New York Times, the two were photographed together on a walk in Sun Valley. The last photo showing them together in Sun Valley is seven years old.
During the Trump legislature, Facebook often openly sided with Trump while burning many bridges with Democrats. Do you think that will fall on Facebook’s toes now that Democrats are in power in the U.S.?
Kang: I think Washington has really opened its eyes to the tech giants now. There’s this incredible movement right now to go after the companies – both for antitrust and regulatory reasons. Facebook is absolutely one of the key targets in this. But the people in key positions in government are looking at the totality of the industry in this. That has less to do with what they think of Mark Zuckerberg trying to form ties to Trump in the past. But it doesn’t help Facebook’s lobbying efforts, of course. They don’t have many friends on the Democratic side.
Could that cripple Facebook’s big lobbying machine?
Kang: Facebook still runs the most powerful corporate lobbying machine in Washington. They spend more money on lobbyists in Washington than any other company, and they’re very well wired. But even so, we’re seeing a complete change in perspective in Washington when it comes to regulating tech companies. The many years of twilight sleep are over.
So if we look four years into the future, do we see a much more tightly regulated tech scene in the U.S.?
Kang: I think everything will start very slowly. That’s because of how our government is structured, with different branches of government – and then sometimes they even work against each other. But there is Republican and Democratic support for some regulations and certainly in general for holding the big tech companies accountable, particularly through antitrust and privacy.
Frenkel: I would add that this development is not just happening in the US. There’s a lot happening internationally right now, which is fascinating and very challenging legally for Facebook. The change may not come from the U.S., but from other countries that create rules that Facebook must obey and that could force the company to change course.
Perhaps the greatest power, however, would come from users. After all, if they were to delete their Facebook accounts in protest or anger in large numbers, or at least rebel against Facebook, that would force Zuckerberg to react immediately. But they don’t, despite all the scandals, data leaks and outrages reported about Facebook and other tech giants. And as exciting as your book is, I don’t think it will change anything. What has to happen for it to happen?
Frenkel: I think you have to rethink your expectations about what it actually means to change the public’s attitude. Expecting people to delete Facebook or stop using Instagram or WhatsApp is just not realistic. These services are so intertwined with many parts of the world – and there are really good things about these apps, too. So what is change? Change is understanding how these companies work, what they do with our data, what their advertising model is, how they keep us on the platforms.
A good comparison might be candy: We’re not going to eliminate sugar, we’re not going to eliminate candy. As a journalist, you can write thousands of articles about how candy leads to obesity and therefore one of the leading causes of death, or how it leads to tooth decay. But you’ll still never convince people to give up sugar altogether. But you can convince them that sugar is not good for them and should only be consumed in moderation. With social media, you should know how it affects the mind and the consequences it has on society. The consequences of this could be a demand for better education about online issues and for governments around the world to educate their public about what it means to be online, what valid sources of online information are, and what a responsible presence on social media looks like.