Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 created a significant amount of turmoil for Facebook, including accusations of improper data stewardship involving Cambridge Analytica, and a number of awkward appearances before Congressional committees, where founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about the social network’s role in spreading disinformation related to everything from the 2016 election to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. According to a new book by two New York Times reporters, Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, the fallout from these events didn’t just cause external problems. It also reportedly created a rift between the Facebook CEO and his second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer and a former Google executive, who was hired in part for her Washington connections. “Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg’s Partnership Did Not Survive Trump,” said the Times headline on an excerpt from the book, which is entitled “Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination.”
In particular, the book alleges that Zuckerberg took control of almost all matters related to Trump, including how to handle his posting of hate speech and disinformation, matters that would previously have been handled by Sandberg — and decisions she reportedly disagreed with, but didn’t want to bring up with the Facebook founder. The company, not surprisingly, denies any and all reports of a rift between the two most powerful people at the top of the company. “This book tells a false narrative based on selective interviews, many from disgruntled individuals, and cherry-picked facts,” Dani Lever, a Facebook spokesperson, told Insider in a statement. “The fault lines that the authors depict between Mark and Sheryl and the people who work with them do not exist. All of Mark’s direct reports work closely with Sheryl and hers with Mark. Sheryl’s role at the company has not changed.”
The alleged friction between Zuckerberg and his second-in-command isn’t the only turmoil the company is dealing with as a result of its handling of Trump, according to the book. Frenkel and Kang report that there is a significant amount of dissent within the ranks of the company’s employees as well, especially over the social network’s failure to act quickly to stop the flow of disinformation from the president’s account. Kang told NPR’s Fresh Air podcast that one of the most fascinating things about doing the reporting for the book — which the authors said involved more than 400 interviews — was talking to employees who “kept trying to raise the alarm, saying ‘This is a problem. We are spreading misinformation. We are letting the president spread misinformation and it’s being amplified by our own algorithms. Our systems aren’t working the way we predicted and we should do something.'”
The authors also provide a significant amount of supporting detail related to a story they reported on for the Times in 2018, involving how the company handled information about election-related meddling by both Russian intelligence and Russian-affiliated entities like the Internet Research Agency. Facebook’s head of security, Alex Stamos, put together an internal report on this activity, but the company couldn’t decide how to handle it. “Oh f—, how did we miss this?” Zuckerberg said when he read the report, according to Frenkel and Kang. Stamos’s security team had detected Russian activity related to the election in March of 2016, the book reports, but Zuckerberg and Sandberg didn’t find out about it until nine months later. Sandberg was reportedly concerned about potential legal liability. Stamos was reportedly pressured to downplay the Russian involvement, and he left Facebook not long afterward to join Stanford University, where he set up the Internet Observatory project to monitor the spread of disinformation and automated propaganda.
More recently, the authors report that the company dithered over how to handle the activity on Facebook in the runup to the attack on the US Capitol. The security team warned senior executives about potential violence, the book says, and these senior managers considered asking Zuckerberg to call Trump personally, to try to get him to intervene and de-escalate the situation. But they were reportedly worried that the media would find out about the phone call, and Facebook would somehow be implicated in whatever happened. And the result of the company’s inaction reinforces the philosophy that Facebook is arguably built on, one articulated by Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, in a quote that gives the book its name. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools,” he wrote in a 2016 memo. “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”
Here’s more on Facebook:
Polarization: Facebook continues to deny that its platform either encourages or benefits from political polarization, but research published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests otherwise, the three authors of that research write in the Washington Post. “We analyzed nearly 3 million U.S.-based tweets and Facebook posts to examine what social media posts that go ‘viral’ have in common,” they write. “The results were stark. The most viral posts tended to be about the opposing political party. Facebook posts and tweets about one’s political out-group… were shared about twice as often as those about one’s own political group. Posts about the opposition were almost exclusively negative.”
Tracking: Facebook engineers have used access to the company’s user data to track down women, according to Frenkel and Kang’s reporting. Between January 2014 and August 2015, the company reportedly fired more than 50 employees for exploiting their access to user data for personal purposes. “One engineer used the data to confront a woman with whom he had been vacationing in Europe after she left the hotel room they had been sharing,” the book said, according to a copy seen by Insider. Another dug up personal information on a woman after she stopped responding to his messages, and was able to see her location in real time.
Unhelpful: The New York Times recently revealed some behind-the-scenes friction within Facebook over a company it acquired in 2016: a service called CrowdTangle, which allows users to track the spread of certain terms and posts across the social network. On one side was founder Brandon Silverman, and on the other side were executives who argued that journalists and researchers were using CrowdTangle “to dig up information they considered unhelpful — showing, for example, that right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino were getting much more engagement on their Facebook pages than mainstream news outlets.”
Other notable stories:
Court documents that were recently unsealed show that the Trump administration’s Justice Department tried to get a court order for the communications records of three Washington Post reporters during William Barr’s tenure as attorney general in 2020, according to a report by the Post, as part of their ongoing attempts to identify the source of leaks. “The new details about the investigation come as senior Justice Department officials are working on regulations to limit the ways in which they can pursue reporters’ data when hunting for the sources of classified information,” the paper reported.
Dylan Byers writes for NBC News about the economic difficulties faced by The Atlantic in the aftermath of the Trump years. The company lost $20 million last year and was on track to lose $10 million this year before it started cutting costs, according to a presentation that chief executive Nicholas Thompson gave earlier this month. Despite this, Thompson was optimistic, Byers says. “The company would lose just a few million dollars in 2022, Thompson projected, and turn a small profit in 2023. When that happened, he said, every staff member would be given $10,000 or a 10 percent salary bonus — whichever was bigger.”
Twitter has decided to shut down Fleets, a feature that competed with services like TikTok and Snapchat by allowing users to post full-screen videos. According to a report from Ad Age magazine, the company found that users “were just not flocking to the feature,” and so it is being shut down, even though the company launched it less than a year ago. “We weren’t seeing the impact we’d like to see from a big bet, so we’re going to pivot our focus elsewhere,” Kayvon Beykpour, product lead at Twitter, said on Wednesday.
Patrick Radden Keefe, author of a recent book on the Sackler family, writes about how the creators of OxyContin have avoided responsibility for the opioid crisis, in a New York Times article entitled “This is What Billionaire Justice Looks Like.” Members of the family “will most likely soon receive a sweeping grant of immunity from all litigation relating to their role in helping to precipitate the opioid crisis,” he writes. “Though they are widely reviled for profiting from a public health crisis that has resulted in the death of half a million Americans, they have used their money and influence to play our system like a harp.”
In an interview for CJR, Lauren Harris talks with Penny Abernathy, whose research on mapping “news deserts” is regularly cited in national newspapers to call attention to the economic crisis that is facing local newsrooms. “The local news crisis is complicated, and a single citation can’t tell the whole story,” writes Harris. “CJR spoke with Abernathy about measuring the crisis and the complicated nature of telling local stories at the national level.”
Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet whose people have been persecuted by the Chinese government, writes for The Atlantic about watching his friends disappear one by one, taken to secret re-education camps. “Surveillance technology, already ubiquitous in our city, had become even more sophisticated and invasive,” he says. “Police were everywhere. I had spent hours cleaning my phone of pictures, videos, audio recordings, and even instant-message records—anything that authorities might seize on as ‘evidence.’”
The Washington Post writes about how Tucker Carlson became the voice of White grievance. The piece is based on “a review of his books, broadcasts and writings over nearly three decades, as well as interviews with current and former associates, subjects of his on-air attacks and others who have observed his career,” writes Michael Kranish. “What emerges is a portrait of an ambitious television personality who came of age in privilege… but who, by his own telling, is a victim.”