Mark Zuckerberg has always been fond of a pugnacious maxim. Infamously, the original motto impressed on Facebook staff was “move fast and break things”. He would allegedly inspire his legion by simply shouting “DOMINATION!” at them. And for a while he apparently had a particularly novel and unsettling way of ending staff meetings: by pumping his first, adopting a look of defiance, then stressing “company over country”.
Well, it’s safe to say the country started fighting back last week, resulting in what might have been the worst few days in Facebook’s 17-year history. It began on Sunday, when a woman named Frances Haugen introduced herself on the US current affairs show 60 Minutes as the whistleblower who had leaked thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal, Congress, and the US government’s Securities and Exchange Commission.
Next, on Monday, unrelated to Haugen’s testimony, a router failure caused Facebook and its family of apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, to crash for almost six hours, wiping more than $47 billion from the company’s market value in one day.
And then on Tuesday, Haugen reappeared, this time to speak at a Senate hearing, where she coolly and meticulously gave her account of what the leaked documents reveal: that Facebook’s business model deliberately makes many users more antagonistic and less sympathetic; does little to stop the spread of misinformation, because doing so would harm its bottom line; that it knows about the negative effects Instagram can have on teenage users’ mental health; and much more besides.
“I came to realise the devastating truth,” Haugen said. “Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook.” The company has denied Haugen’s claims, stating that her leaks “contained mischaracterisations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of pages of documents to the media
That was all in just three days. If you want some idea of how much pressure Facebook is under, you need only read the first few words of a missive Zuckerberg sent to staff after Haugen’s testimony. “Hey everyone: it’s been quite a week,” he opened. It was Tuesday afternoon.
To most people – and most people are Facebook customers of some kind or another – the dramatic reckoning of the world’s largest social network might have felt sudden. To Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, co-authors of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle For Domination – a recent and devastating Facebook exposé that was the result of 15 years of research and more than 400 interviews with past and present employees, many of whom broke non-disclosure agreements – it was only a matter of time.
“In a way it was incredibly validating, because these themes had emerged, from employees who were telling us: ‘We think the problem is the business model… It’s business above all else… We constantly have a calculus in our minds of getting people to spend as much time as possible [on the site]…’ Then to have someone come to Congress with actual documentation of that, it fell so in line with everything people had told us,” Frenkel says.
As technology reporters for the New York Times, Frenkel and Kang have followed Facebook since its inception, watching as Zuckerberg has grown from an enterprising Harvard graduate to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in history. In that time, he has developed a system for working out how reputationally damaging a scandal has been. “They ask users whether Facebook is good for the world, and cares about users, summarised as GFW and CAU,” Frenkel says. “Those are the metrics Mark Zuckerberg checks every single week. I don’t know what he’s saying to himself right now, but I do imagine he’s looking at that data.”
Zuckerberg could publish a short book composed solely of his apologies and pledges to do better, but despite redefining the words “like” and “friend” for every human being with an internet connection, he has never been concerned with being liked, and never been afraid of losing friends.
Mark Zuckerberg: a reimagined Caesar Augustus?
“He once said, ‘It’s better to be understood than to be liked’, and I think he truly believes that in the long arc of history, Facebook will be judged more positively than it is currently,” Kang says. The mysteriously absent Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, tries hard to cultivate an image of inspirational benevolence. Sir Nick Clegg, the vice-president for global affairs and communications since 2018, was partly brought in for his affability. Zuckerberg has no such pretensions.
“One of his heroes is the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, and he said that through some pretty harsh means, Caesar Augustus established the empire and a period of peace, and became known in history as one of the most impactful emperors. That’s how Zuckerberg views himself and Facebook,” adds Kang.
To browse Zuckerberg’s Instagram account, you wouldn’t have thought anything was up. A video uploaded on the day Haugen spoke to 60 Minutes showed he was on his boat, Shenanigans, with his wife Priscilla Chan. In the post just before, he was fencing against the US Olympic team.
Last week was no normal ticking-off for Facebook, however. Haugen was compellingly articulate and her claims damning, but it was the sudden shift in politicians’ understanding of how social media companies work (the days of senators asking Zuckerberg how a free website makes money, as in 2018, are gone) that shows governments may finally get tough on a company that’s thus far been largely left alone.
Add to that a clear dissatisfaction among the ranks, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Facebook empire is beginning to crack.
“Oh, I think there have been cracks in the empire for quite some time,” Kang says, instantly. “Mid-level employees have for years protested a lot of the decisions made by Zuckerberg and the senior leadership, but those protests have fallen on deaf ears […] Until this week, the cracks have been tiny, capillary-like fissures in the empire, but it’s now been normalised for employees to talk to reporters.”
She adds a “huge caveat” that nothing can change until there’s a change at the top. But Zuckerberg, a rare CEO of a company Facebook’s size to have a 55 per cent controlling share, approves everything. “And it doesn’t look like Mark’s leaving. So the only change that can come has to come from outside.”
Regulation will come, in some form or another, and it’s partly why Clegg is there. He isn’t just a PR man with an accent that sounds Hugh Grant-like to Californians – he also has a black book full of global politicians.
“Facebook’s whole challenge going forward is to navigate global politics. It is a body politic. It’s so big and it governs itself with rules it creates for itself, so it operates in so many ways like its own nation state,” Kang says. “Nick Clegg is in many ways the chief ambassador for politicians around the world to make sure Facebook’s business can thrive.”
Nick Clegg was brought in to repair the company's public image
At the hearing on Tuesday, Senator Richard Blumenthal claimed that “Facebook and Big Tech are facing their Big Tobacco moment,” given social media managed recklessly “can be addictive and toxic to children” – something Facebook has been accused of knowing but ignoring.
Cigarettes can be given up, though, and it’s fairly easy to avoid them. Facebook’s products are used by three billion people. Businesses run on it, friends and families rely on it (we realised just how much during Monday’s blackout), whole countries have been transformed by its technology.
It is so widely used because it is free, but there is always going to be a cost, and if your modus operandi is to “move fast and break things”, that cost is likely to be user safety. A better comparison, then, might be cars: they’re here to stay, but not without speed limits, and driving tests, age limits and air bags…
“Facebook has become a utility, and we need to start thinking about it like a utility,” says Frenkel. “We’ve all grown used to social media being part of our world, so even if it disappeared tomorrow, there would be another company taking its place within days. So it’s not that we should get rid of it entirely, but we need to learn to regulate and improve it.”
Politicians are finally starting to realise that. Mark Zuckerberg may need another maxim.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang (The Bridge Street Press). RRP £20. Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514