What you may not already know about Facebook

AN UGLY TRUTH: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination
Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
Harper (July 2021)

A brilliant analysis of efforts to grow Facebook’s size and profitability, no matter what

Here is a brief excerpt from ‘s review of this recently published book by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. To read the complete review, check out other articles, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

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On Jan. 6, after monitoring the messages domestic extremists were posting on Facebook, the company’s security experts became increasingly worried there might be violence in Washington, D.C. The team warned top executives, who even mulled asking their C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, to call Donald Trump and find out what the president was intending to tell his mob of supporters then gathering to protest the election results. But the executives scrapped that plan, worried the media would find out about such a phone call and Facebook would be implicated in whatever happened next.

Instead, they sat at home and watched as Trump stirred up the furious crowd, and as threats in Facebook posts escalated into real-world attacks on the Capitol. Days later, in a video interview with Reuters, Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, blamed the riots on far-right niche social media sites, such as Gab and Parler, “that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”

By the time this anecdote appears in An Ugly Truth, the exposé written by the New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, it’s part of a familiar pattern: The social media behemoth does as little as possible to prevent disasters from happening, then feebly attempts to avoid blame and manage public appearances. The same series of events — an unheeded warning from an employee or an outsider, followed by executives’ inaction, followed by crisis — repeats with regard to users’ data privacy, Russia’s influence in American elections, ethnic violence in Myanmar and on and on.

This is a book intended to make you outraged at Facebook. But if you’ve read anything about the company in recent years, you probably already are. Frenkel and Kang faced the challenge of unearthing new and interesting material about one of the most heavily debated communication tools of our modern age. More than 400 interviews later, they’ve produced the ultimate takedown via careful, comprehensive interrogation of every major Facebook scandal. An Ugly Truth provides the kind of satisfaction you might get if you hired a private investigator to track a cheating spouse: It confirms your worst suspicions and then gives you all the dates and details you need to cut through the company’s spin.

The market has not lacked for Facebook books. There are insiders and academics plainly out to prosecute, such as Roger McNamee in Zucked and Siva Vaidhyanathan in Antisocial Media, and authors who write more impartial histories of the company’s rise to power, such as Steven Levy with Facebook and David Kirkpatrick with The Facebook Effect.

Frenkel and Kang’s addition to this overstuffed genre revisits all of the company’s known missteps; at times, reading it felt like a reprise of the greatest hits in Facebook journalism. But by weaving all those threads together, and adding new reporting from high-level meetings in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., the authors manage to effectively examine the shortcomings in the company’s leadership, structure and accountability. The book connects the internal drama and decision-making at Facebook with what we have all experienced on the outside.

The reporting duo’s sources are highly placed. Readers get fly-on-the-wall access to a shouting match at a Facebook board meeting over Russian election interference, as well as Sandberg’s too-casual testimony to the Federal Trade Commission over Facebook’s monopoly powers, where she “kicked off her shoes and folded her legs under her, as she often does in meetings, and spooned the foam off her cappuccino while taking questions.”

Facebook employees have told me they’re nervous about the book’s release, and for good reason. Frenkel and Kang expose the dysfunction of its top ranks, revealing tensions between Zuckerberg and Sandberg. The two executives appear to blame each other for Facebook’s problems. Sandberg, with a reputation as a master communicator, disappoints Zuckerberg by failing to smooth over perceptions of Facebook in public and with regulators. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, makes policy decisions that Sandberg disagrees with, but doesn’t say so out of fear Zuckerberg will find her disloyal. Instead, she confides in friends about how difficult it is to change his mind.

The employees who report to them seem unwilling to bring the leaders bad news, because they know all too well about the — and not slow anything down with attention to what might be broken on the platform. Change only comes in response to external pressure, whether in the form of regulatory inquiry or explosive media story.

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Here is a direct link to the complete review.

Sheera Frenkel covers cybersecurity from San Francisco for the New York Times. Previously, she spent over a decade in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent, reporting for BuzzFeed, NPR, the Times of London and McClatchy Newspapers.

Cecilia Kang covers technology and regulatory policy out of Washington. She joined The New York Times in 2015 after 10 years covering technology and business at The Washington Post.

Sarah Frier reports on social media companies for Bloomberg News from San Francisco. Her award-winning features and breaking stories have earned her a reputation as an expert on how Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter make business decisions that affect their future and our society.
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