From the outset, Facebook pitched itself as something new and good—a revolutionary force for transparency and accountability. In early interviews with David Kirkpatrick, the author of “The Facebook Effect,” Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., envisioned a challenge to the tools of corporate and political camouflage. “When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly,” he said, “it puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, and more trustworthy.”
As the company grew, it sought to maintain its outsider ethos. In a letter to potential investors, in 2012, Zuckerberg proclaimed, “We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way.” It reached beyond the hacker ethos of ingenious engineering, he explained, to shape the company’s internal culture. “Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win—not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.” In recent years, the company has sought to stay true to its hacker DNA. At weekly all-hands meetings, Zuckerberg has highlighted a “fix of the week,” celebrating the in-house esoteric technical interventions that the rest of the company may have overlooked.
Yet during the past two years the image of a nimble, idealistic upstart has steadily eroded, as the company has strained to make changes that would protect user privacy and prevent the spread of disinformation. On Wednesday, the idea of a company dedicated to “openness” took another blow. A Times investigation by a team of reporters found that Facebook has engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to “delay, deny and deflect” efforts to hold the company accountable. (In a statement issued on Thursday, Facebook said that the piece contains “a number of inaccuracies” about the timing and the motives behind its actions.)
Some of the Times’ account is, by now, familiar. Members of Congress, for instance, have long complained that Facebook rebuffed early efforts to investigate interference in the 2016 election. (“The initial reaction was completely dismissive,” Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, told me last summer.) But the piece contained many new details about Facebook’s use of decidedly swampy political public-relations and lobbying techniques. To blunt critics in Congress, Facebook relied on Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, whose daughter works at the company; it also hired Warner’s former chief of staff to lobby against a Senate bill introduced by Warner and Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat, which would expand federal regulation over online political advertising. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, made a personal appeal to Klobuchar, who had lent support to Sandberg’s “Lean In” project, which promotes women’s empowerment in the workplace.
The most disturbing revelation is that Facebook employed Definers Public Affairs, a conservative Washington-based consultant, to promote negative stories about Facebook’s competitors by pushing them on the NTK Network, which calls itself “a unique news website that brings together data points from all platforms to tell the whole story.” NTK is not, in fact, a news Web site; it shares offices and staff with Definers. As the Times reported, “Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.” In other words, Facebook employed a political P.R. firm that circulated exactly the kind of pseudo-news that Facebook has, in its announcements, sought to prevent from eroding Americans’ confidence in fact versus fiction.
On another front, Definers also sought to discredit Freedom from Facebook, a nonprofit opposition group, by encouraging reporters to write about its ties to George Soros, the liberal financier who is a subject of obsessive, often conspiratorial attention in conservative circles. On Thursday, Sarah Miller, a spokesperson for Freedom from Facebook, told me, “Congress and the Federal Trade Commission should come to terms with the fact that Facebook will never change, unless they force it to—and they should, without delay, to protect our democracy.” (On Thursday, as the report of the P.R. firm’s activities stirred criticism, Facebook said that it had ended its relationship. The company said that it had not asked the firm to circulate false stories.)
The portrait of Facebook presented in the Times, as in other reports over the past two years, is no longer that of a hacker but, rather, that of a practiced participant in this golden age of manipulation, in which influential organizations—companies, candidates, murky political actors—use their power to shape political outcomes in ways they don’t disclose and that the public rarely fully understands. Facebook appears less a company outside the bounds of big-money P.R. and politics than one operating squarely within them—a contradiction that Zuckerberg, so far, has been willing to accept.
In the short run, the Times story will revive questions about whether Zuckerberg and Sandberg should remain at the head of the company. But nobody involved with Facebook thinks they are at obvious risk of losing their jobs, because they maintain the support of a board of directors that some observers believe has been far too passive in the face of Facebook’s stumbles.
The larger risks are in the long term. In Silicon Valley, where talented staff are in high demand, Facebook’s biggest problem is declining morale. Many people joined the company in the hope of disrupting antique structures of power and deception—a spirit that Facebook, in its early days, called “radical transparency.” Very little of its Washington operation fits that image. As the company’s troubles mounted this year, TechCrunch reported, “If employees wake up each day unsure whether Facebook’s mission is actually harming the world, they won’t stay.” Others will stay, but will just “rest and vest,” vegetating until they gain ownership of their stock options. For employees who took pride in joining Facebook, it is an uncomfortable phase. Nobody wants to have to apologize for their employer. A former Facebook executive told me, “They want to be proud at Thanksgiving.”
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