Steven Levy, longtime author and editor at large for Wired, told a Techonomy online audience in early April “I’m not one to write a polemic.” But as he let the facts speak for themselves, they often turn out to be damning, in his recent and lauded Facebook: The Inside Story. It is by far the most detailed and authoritative account of this company’s fraught 16-year history, and of its enigmatic and vexing all-powerful CEO.
Said Levy at the public Techonomy Zoom session: “I have multiple instances in the book where Facebook was about to do something, and it either violated privacy or uncovered a vulnerability, and people close to Mark said ‘Don’t do this,’ or even said ‘This is wrong to do this.’ And Zuckerberg overruled them and did it anyway.”
Levy gave the company a chance to address that very issue in his fact-checking process. He explicitly laid out that pattern in Zuckerberg’s behavior, exactly as he said it to us, for the company’s response. And in reply to this question, the public relations people returned him a single word: “Accurate.”
“They built it in a way that the problems are baked in,” he explained. “I tried methodically to compile where this happened and where they could have gone into a different direction. But they built something that was ripe for exploitation. Abuse would be baked in by misinformation and by people using data to mislead people, and it didn’t have to be that way. But they did it without thinking of the consequences.”
Levy explained that Zuckerberg proudly and resolutely, over many years, prioritized “sharing” over privacy: “It wasn’t until after Cambridge Analytica that [Zuckerberg] said…`We got that backwards.’ He didn’t figure out until 2018 the order things should go in–privacy, and then sharing.” Another point Levy addressed is that Zuckerberg delegated everything but product and engineering to his deputy Sheryl Sandberg, which he also finally realized, a decade after hiring her in 2008, to have been a mistake. Levy noted that even the chief security officer, Alex Stamos, reported up to Sandberg and never once had a one-on-one meeting with Zuckerberg in his entire tenure at the company. This is why we need detailed histories of consequential companies.
Sure, there are plenty of neutral and even sometimes appealing facts in his book, including details about Zuckerberg’s childhood, life at home and in high school and college, and early days in the frat house that was Facebook. It’s engaging to learn these details. But those were not the kind of things the numerous Techonomists who gathered via Zoom to listen to Levy wanted to ask about. Like me, who wrote my own book about the company’s early history (first published way back in 2010), they were for the most part worried. A poll of online attendees found that 54% of them felt Facebook’s impact on the world is mostly or very negative. But, as Levy noted, 37% of poll respondents also said its impact was mostly positive.
I asked him how worried he is that Facebook will be dangerously manipulated to distort the result of this year’s elections in the United States. His reply: “Facebook has spent a lot of energy and resources to mitigate a lot of the problems of 2016, but overall I don’t think it’s going to be a positive force in the election. In some ways the platform works too well to reflect the divisiveness…in our political system. I’m not saying Facebook is ruining our system, but that Facebook, as constituted, amplifies what’s wrong.”
In his talk with Techonomy, as in his book, Levy returned to the company’s mandate for growth as the root of its problems, and even of its identity. He says numerous other outcomes all hinged on or related to that overarching desire to gain more users–including the rush which led to a disregard for privacy, the extension into scores of languages in which they had no capacity for oversight, and even the corporate and individual wealth. “Growth just dominates at Facebook,” he said, “and the reason they needed to make money was so they could grow faster.”
On the issue of overseeing speech, Levy was blunt. Zuckerberg, he said, does not talk much about “free speech,” preferring the term “free expression.” But Facebook’s (read: Zuckerberg’s) decision not to fact-check ads placed by politicians is, to Levy, beyond the pale. “The political ad policy is one of those areas where this free expression stuff is just ridiculous. Zuckerberg is totally off base to allow people to say things in ads that he would fact-check and mitigate, or rank lower, if they were organic posts. It’s crazy to say…we are going to help a politician buy access to you when it’s a lie.”
And he noted contradictions in the company’s stance around speech: “The coronavirus is a good example, when Facebook identified something that is protected by first amendment speech, but bad for Facebook, they didn’t hesitate.” (The company widely and rapidly takes down virus-related misinformation.) “They realized the horrific consequences for them if they allowed misinformation to flourish, and took action,” he continued. “It would be nice if that were the model for more things on Facebook–that they protect the people…without having to be dragged into it kicking and screaming.”
On the general notion of targeted ads, Facebook’s stock-in-trade, Levy was only slightly less critical: “I don’t think gathering data and targeting ads based on that should be allowed unless people specifically know what they are opting in to.” He also said that laws need to hold Facebook and other net companies to account more than they do. “We don’t protect peoples’ privacy,” he said, referring to the United States. “Our laws are inadequate to do that.”
For all his book’s damning implicit-criticism-by-fact, Levy told the audience, which appeared riveted, that Zuckerberg himself told him, after publication, that while he disagreed with some things in the book, he considered it to be fair and honest.
Levy, perhaps more than the present author, remains unheated even when he damns by reciting facts. His book is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand the vast impact this one unbounded company has on life, business, and politics around the world.