Can you imagine any normal company keeping its CEO if it faced, like Facebook does, an endless litany of criticism for failures, mistakes, harms, omissions, distortions, lies, and delusions? A normal company would not. A normal company would replace its leadership.
Facebook, of course, cannot. Facebook, of course, has no governance. Facebook is a dictatorship of one man, who controls 58% of the company’s voting shares. Yet his judgment appears worse with every passing day. It is hard to recall another big company facing this many scandals, this relentlessly.
I would not have expected myself to say it, but Facebook would be much better off without its current CEO. Sadly for the world, the prospect of such a change happening is almost nil.
We’ve reached a cruel irony. The world faces a blight of autocrats, leading country after country into xenophobic irrational often violent ultranationalism, just as one company has come to dominate the world’s communication networks, itself ruled by an irrational autocrat who is incapable of subjecting himself to any meaningful scrutiny.
And the further, deeply painful, irony is this: that exact company’s conscious and willful empowerment of those autocrats and their political parties is a significant factor in their rise. That is true around the world. A combination of several factors has played a key role. First, Facebook’s lenient “cross check” system, as revealed by the Wall Street Journal in its Facebook Files series, grants political leaders in almost every country a pass to say pretty much anything they want. (The company’s own Oversight Board this week said company managers had essentially lied to the board about how that system worked, as they investigated how Facebook treated Donald Trump.)
But that’s not all. Closely related to the lenient cross check system is the fact that the company has multiple incentives to keep government leaders happy, no matter what they post and no matter how bad they are. As this year’s first Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, put it this week in testimony for a committee of the British Parliament, “The people [at Facebook] charged with making important decisions about what the rules are and how the rules are getting enforced are the same as those charged with keeping good relationships with local politicians and governmental members.” She’s referring in large part to the power of Joel Kaplan, vice president for global public policy. (He’s a Republican known best for his friendship with conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, behind whom Kaplan sat in the controversial hearings that led to Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court.)
Just Friday Oct. 22, as this column was going to press, yet another new whistleblower complaint emerged in the Washington Post, alleging again that the company willfully disregard warnings about the pernicious impact of its moderation policy failures, especially in the U.S. This still-unnamed person apparently has filed a sworn affidavit with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleging, among other things, that company executives deliberately misled investors by playing down risks from failures of governance. The Post says this quote is in the affidavit, made by a company communications official during 2017 controversies about Russian government manipulation of voters on Facebook during the 2016 election: “It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine.”
I continue to think that of all Facebook’s errors, both willful and inadvertent, the worst, by far, is that its policies regarding speech have enabled forces of division and political exploitation in country after country to spew lies, engender hate, and create social division, in a known pattern that ends up assisting evil autocrats and their allies to gain and hold political power. This is the criticism most stridently made by Zhang, whose job at Facebook was to try to combat “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
In Time’s coverage of her testimony this week in Britain, it writes about what happened when Zhang tried to take action against manipulative and dishonest networks of pro-government posts on Facebook in undemocratic countries like Honduras: “When Zhang raised her findings with senior management, she was told by Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, that threat intelligence would only prioritize campaigns in ‘the US/Western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc.’ The company did not have ‘unlimited resources,’ he said.”
This approach is, in my view, a crime. Facebook is failing in an egregious way to take responsibility for its social and media influence in numerous countries where it is, almost always, the de facto primary media. (And this has been long known. Here’s an article I wrote about it back in 2018.) As for not having “unlimited resources,” that may be technically true, but Facebook can afford to do a lot more. Its net profits are in the range of $40 billion per year, and its CEO, even with the stock down, is still worth $127 billion.
I continue to believe the biggest smoking gun revealed so far in the numerous revelations from the most prominent recent Facebook whistleblower, Francis Haugen, is that only 13% of the company’s efforts against misinformation and disinformation in 2020 were conducted in languages other than English. Facebook is approaching 3 billion users around the world, who speak hundreds of different languages. That shameful statistic and related issues may emerge even more pointedly in revelations in the coming weeks, I hear. I hope so.
That a company could allow this sort of social harm to emerge is inexcusable, no matter what other good stuff it might make possible. This kind of harm is more likely when one person has unlimited power to make decisions with no oversight. Unfortunately, Facebook’s board of directors serves entirely at Zuckerberg’s whim, so he will go only if he decides to go.
The company was reported this week to be considering a name change. It is doing that, at least in part, to try to repair its image. But that image will not be remedied by anything other than fundamental reforms. And one fundamental reform is most needed.
Zuckerberg should no longer serve as Facebook’s autocrat.
David Kirkpatrick is Techonomy’s founder, and published The Facebook Effect in 2010.