The Facebook engineer itched when he knew why his date hadn’t responded to his messages. Maybe there was a simple explanation – maybe she was sick or on vacation.
So at 10pm one night at Menlo Park headquarters he opened her Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and started looking at her personal information. Her politics, her lifestyle, her interests – even her location in real time.
The engineer will be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who inappropriately abused access to company data, a privilege then available to anyone who worked at Facebook, regardless of job function or seniority. The vast majority of the 51 people were like him: men looking for information about the women they were interested in.
In September 2015, after Alex Stamos, the new head of insurance, drew Mark Zuckerberg’s attention to this problem, the CEO ordered a review of the system to restrict employees’ access to user data. It was a rare victory for Stamos, in which he convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame for this, not individual behavior.
That’s how it starts Ugly truth, a new book about Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. With Frenkel’s expertise in cybersecurity, Kang’s expertise in technology and regulatory policy, and deep sources of resources, the duo provides a compelling account of Facebook’s years spanning the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Stamos wouldn’t have that luck anymore. Issues arising from Facebook’s business model would only escalate in the years that followed, but as Stamos uncovered growing problems, including Russian interference in U.S. elections, he was pushed because Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg faced awkward truths. Once he left, management continued to refuse to address a range of deeply troubling issues, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the genocide in Myanmar, and widespread secret disinformation.
Frenkel and Kang argue that Facebook’s problems today are not the product of a company that has lost its way. Instead, they are part of his very design, built on top of Zuckerberg’s narrow worldview, the careless culture of privacy he nurtured, and the astonishing ambitions he pursued with Sandberg.
When the company was still small, perhaps such a lack of foresight and imagination could be justified. But since then, Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s decisions have shown that growth and revenue outweigh everything else.
For example, in a chapter entitled “Company Over Country,” the authors note how the leadership tried to bury the extent of Russian electoral interference on the platform of the U.S. intelligence community, Congress, and the U.S. public. They censored multiple attempts by Facebook’s security team to post details of what they found and selected data to downplay the seriousness and partisan nature of the problem. When Stamos proposed a redesign of the company’s organization to prevent a recurrence of the problem, other leaders dismissed the idea as “alarming” and focused their resources on taking control of the public narrative and keeping regulators at bay.