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The Moral Bankruptcy of Facebook

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The Moral Bankruptcy of Facebook

On Sunday, October 3rd, shortly before “60 Minutes” aired an interview in which Frances Haugen outed herself as the Facebook whistle-blower, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s C.E.O., posted a video that began with his wife, Priscilla Chan, sitting on a sailboat. She grins for a second, as if posing for a photo; then she turns, her grin starting to fade; then, apparently realizing that she is being videotaped, she does her best to sustain a smile. In the final edit, the sound of whipping wind was replaced by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane playing the opening bars of “In a Sentimental Mood.” “Sailing with Priscilla and friends,” Zuckerberg’s caption read. “Shot on 😎.” The clip, in other words, was not just a life update but a product demo: Zuckerberg had recorded it using a pair of Stories, new “first-generation smart glasses” co-designed by Facebook and Ray-Ban—ideal for those relatable everyday moments when you want to keep streaming but you need to keep both hands on your jib sheets.

Facebook and its C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, have taken an aggressively defensive stance against allegations that the social-media company profits from sowing divisiveness.Photograph by Abdulhamid Hosbas / Anadolu Agency / Getty

On “60 Minutes,” Haugen summarized some of the extensive evidence she’d collected while she was a Facebook employee—thousands of pages of internal documents, some of which she leaked to the Wall Street Journal, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and members of Congress, in which Facebook’s researchers and other employees describe, often with chilling precision, what their products are doing to humanity. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the documents reveal (or, really, confirm) what many social-media skeptics have long argued: that Facebook makes millions of its users more angry, more confused, and more psychologically frail; that comments discouraging vaccination against COVID-19 are “rampant” on the platform, and that efforts to flag them for review are “bad in English, and basically non-existent elsewhere”; that a non-trivial proportion of suicidal teen-agers “traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram”; that it’s against Facebook’s rules to post revenge porn, but that when you’re a star they let you do it—that, in other words, Facebook is just as toxic as we thought, and that the company’s top executives know this but seem to treat it as little more than a P.R. problem. (In a post rebutting the Wall Street Journal series, a Facebook official wrote, “These stories have contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do, and conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.”) On “60 Minutes,” Haugen concluded that it was time for Facebook to declare “moral bankruptcy,” which she defined as “an opportunity for Mark, for Facebook, to come in and say, ‘We completely messed up.’ ”

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Of course, Zuckerberg has been saying more or less those exact words since before Facebook was Facebook. What Haugen really wanted, presumably, was for him to mean it this time, and to do something about it. In “An Ugly Truth,” a formidable feat of muckraking published in July, the co-authors Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang provide about five reasons per page to regard Facebook as the sociocultural equivalent of a fossil-fuel company. Before you even open the book, though, there are the blurbs. Zuckerberg, September, 2017: “I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.” Zuckerberg, April, 2018: “It was my mistake and I’m sorry.” Zuckerberg, May, 2020: “We need to do a better job.” The book’s designers were limited only by the dimensions of the cover, not by a paucity of similar quotes.

Last month, in the Times, Frenkel and her colleague Ryan Mac published an article titled “No More Apologies: Inside Facebook’s Push to Defend Its Image.” In the article, Facebook’s current communications and policy executives (that is, the ones who have chosen to stay at the company, and whom Zuckerberg has chosen to promote) come across as thin-skinned, provincial, defensive nearly to the point of self-delusion. They seem convinced that Facebook is the victim of an unfair and disproportionate amount of bad press, and that attempts to placate the public have only backfired. Instead, they settle on what is called, in a tellingly oxymoronic phrase, “a more aggressive defense.” (The notion that the criticism is mostly warranted—that the salient issue is not an overzealous regulatory state, an axe-grinding mainstream media, or an inexplicably irrational user base but that the central problem with Facebook is Facebook—does not seem to occur to them.) Frenkel and Mac report that the communications team “discussed ways for executives to be less conciliatory” and came up with “a strategy for distancing Mr. Zuckerberg from scandals, partly by focusing his Facebook posts and media appearances on new products”—a way for him to spend less time tacking into headwinds and more time posting about surveillance sunglasses. (A Facebook spokesperson told the Times that the company had not changed its approach.)

On Monday, the day after Haugen’s “60 Minutes” interview and the day before she spoke at a Senate hearing, some of Facebook’s routers failed, causing Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to crash for most of the afternoon. This was a big enough deal that Zuckerberg briefly suspended his no-apology rule. “Sorry for the disruption today,” he posted. “I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about.” Conspiracy theories abounded, but the outage seems to have been a coincidence—the kind of thing that can happen, pretty much anytime, when billions of people’s online lives depend on the infrastructure of a single company. “Monopoly systems are fragile and dangerous and besides allowing for abusive, extractive, behavior, are just a stupid way to design anything,” Zephyr Teachout, an activist and antitrust scholar, tweeted. “Break ’em up.” During the roughly six hours when its apps were unusable, Facebook’s stock price plummeted, causing Zuckerberg to lose, on paper, nearly seven billion dollars. By Monday night, though, the stock price had started to rebound, and he was back to posting about non sequiturs—in this case, one of the nonprofits funded by his philanthropy.

The next day, Zuckerberg wrote an aggressively defensive memo to his employees, then shared it on his Facebook page. The no-apology rule was back in effect. “I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know,” he wrote. “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. . . . The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.” This has been his line for years, but his tone has recently grown more defiant, even desperate. In one sense, this was discouraging—just about the opposite of the road-to-Damascus moment that Haugen was envisioning on “60 Minutes.” In another sense, it was bracing, like the moment in a ferocious argument when your antagonist finally drops his layers of pretense and admits how he really feels. As usual, Zuckerberg padded his rationale with some carefully selected statistics, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. “When I reflect on our work, I think about the real impact we have on the world—the people who can now stay in touch with their loved ones, create opportunities to support themselves, and find community,” he concluded. “I’m proud of everything we do to keep building the best social products in the world.” That has always been his bottom line; he hardly seems to care, these days, how many rhetorical contortions it takes him to get there. (“We have absolutely no commercial incentive, no moral incentive, no company-wide incentive to do anything other than to try to give the maximum number of people as much of a positive experience as possible on Facebook, and that is what we do day in and day out,” Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, told me.)

In her review of “An Ugly Truth,” my colleague Jill Lepore compared Facebook to a church. In any kind of church—not to mention a multilevel-marketing scheme, or a doomsday cult—there are true believers. If you start to get the creeping feeling that your church’s core ideology is indefensible, you have two options. You can do whatever it takes to defend the indefensible, or you can leave. For most true believers, though, the latter option—choosing apostasy, which is a kind of self-exile,—is not really an option at all. If this is the dilemma that binds a follower, how much more strongly does it bind the church’s founding pastor, or its prophet?

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The Moral Bankruptcy of Facebook