An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination
Sheera Frankel, Cecilia Kang 2021
When I signed up for Facebook back in 2007, I thought it was the best thing ever. All in one place I could contact people from anywhere in the world, while finding people from my past who I'd lost touch with. I could see interesting content from a variety of places that never seemed to run out, and best of all it was 100% free.
Well, it turns out Facebook was never free. The company has made billions of dollars selling my and other people's information to advertisers so that they could learn more and more about me and addict me to their products and content. This book, An Ugly Truth, tells the dirty inside story of Facebook as seen from two professional New York Times journalists. Facebook has been the subject of several books and has been much in the news lately, and reading this book gave me a clearer picture of what they've been up to.
Facebook, which started in 2004 as a college project to rate hot women, has grown to nearly 3 Billion monthly users, which is nearly half of the planet. It's gotten that big because of its easy setup and addictive content. The Facebook algorithm, or computer code, is able to know humans better than they know themselves, and get them to expose personal data while spending hours on the site. Facebook's newsfeed, a never ending scroll of misinformation, cat memes, news about relatives, and advertising, has been tweaked and analyzed to the point where it can entertain us and hold our valuable attention for an endless amount of time.
This book paints a disturbing picture of the two people most responsible for Facebook's rise in power and its abuse of that power. Mark Zuckerberg, the company's founder, is still tightly in charge of Facebook, and the book paints him as a sheltered nerdy billionaire, who has spent most of his life either in wealthy private schools or expensive Silicon Valley enclaves. Zuckerberg claims to be a super-connector who wants to unite the world, and he shies away from any conflicts that would make Facebook responsible for the content on its site. He seems to be clueless about all the controversy that his company has been associated with, and his single-minded pursuit has always been in higher and higher profits and more people spending more time on his site.
The second star of the book, Sheryl Sandberg, is Zuckerberg's number 2 and the company's chief operating officer. Sandberg was hired in 2008 and has been more of the public relations face of the company, though she has little power in any of the major decisions. An Ugly Truth makes her look like a feminist who talks a good game, but ultimately falls in line and apologizes for the many scandals that the company has had to weather.
The book devotes considerable time to three of Facebook's major scandals:
1- Russians were found to have created fake accounts in 2016 and paid Facebook hundreds of thousands to spread lies in the form of political advertisements. Facebook claims that they have no responsibility to fact check political ads, which is why so many of them are deceptive and effective. Zuckerberg seemed to have no awareness of the Russian involvement when it was going on, only finding out after the election and downplaying its impact.
2- A company, Cambridge Analytica, used online surveys through the Facebook app to gather personal information about millions of US users before the 2016 election. This information, which was not sold nor available to the public, was weaponized and turned into targeted political ads.
3- Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, experienced a near genocide in 2017 after the popular platform was used to spread hate speech and lies about the minority Rohingya Muslim population. Some 24,000 people were killed and another 700,000 left the country. Myanmar has over 100 different languages and Facebook was woefully unprepared to monitor the hate speech that led to this tragedy.
Mark Zuckerberg has been called in front of congress numerous times, and part of the problem has been that the US Senate is filled with elderly Senators who don't understand how the internet works, much less how it should be regulated. He left up a doctored video that appeared to show Nancy Pelosi drunk, and gave Donald Trump plenty of leeway when he spread lies during a pandemic and incited racial hatred with things like "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." Though some in congress have threatened to regulate or break up Facebook, the company has gotten through its scandals stronger and richer, and has little reason to fear politicians, many of whom get generous donations to their campaigns.
One of the more dangerous inventions of Facebook recently has been Facebook groups. Advertised heavily as places for like-minded people to get together and talk about music or hobbies, groups have also become a dark place for conspiracy-minded people to gather and spread disinformation. The worst of these is the Q-Anon conspiracy, that has enticed millions of Americans to join thousands of Facebook groups that promote wild conspiracies that have no basis in the real world. Since 2020, Facebook has started removing groups related to Q-Anon, but because of the low visibility of many of the groups to non-members, not even they know what's going on in these secretive groups. The January 6th insurrection has been tied to Facebook groups, and there are worries that even worse terrorist attacks could emanate from these dark corners.
All you need to know about Facebook's algorithm is in the chapter about the 2020 election. After the election, Facebook tweaked the algorithm to favor legitimate news over what they know to be fake news. They did this on purpose because the nation was on edge over the close election. But after a week of the "nice" algorithm they noticed that usage was going down, and slowly switched back to the "mean" algorithm. Mean content and outrage is what has made Facebook what it is today.
This is the main problem exposed by this book, by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, and by thousands of other critics of the popular platform. Lies and outrage create engagement, clicks and profits. Niceness and accuracy are boring, and people eventually drift away to something more enticing. This problem isn't unique to Facebook- all of the news outlets struggle with the urge to sensationalize and exaggerate complicated stories to gain viewers and ad dollars. Facebook is in the crosshairs because they've become so powerful and influential- enough so that they threated the very idea of democracy itself.
Mark Zuckerberg isn't standing still. His next plans include changing the name of the company and creating a metaverse- a virtual reality where people can meet up and create their own worlds. He wants to merge the worlds of online gaming with online socializing, with few guardrails on what people come up with. Based on the addictive nightmare that Facebook has already created- families destroyed as members to go down rabbit holes of extremism, teenagers to falling into depression, and hate speech and disinformation spreading like wildfire, I'm not optimistic.
I recommend reading this book, but will continue to use Facebook until I find a better alternative out there. (If you have one you can recommend, let me know.) I just advise people to be very careful about what content you explore on Facebook and what information you share on the platform, because "the algorithm" is smarter and more powerful than any of us can imagine.