Sheera Frenkel

Books: Technology | Biography

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination (2021) Sheera Frenkel, Cecilia Kang

An Ugly TruthThis book sets out to tell you how things are, and pulls no punches, right from the start.

For years, Facebook had exercised a merciless "buy-or-bury" strategy to kill off competitors. The result was the creation of a powerful monopoly that wreaked broad damage. It abused the privacy of its users and spurred an epidemic of toxic and harmful content reaching three billion people. "By using its vast troves of data and money, Facebook has squashed or hindered what the company perceived as potential threats," James said. "They've reduced choices for consumers, they stifled innovation and they degraded privacy protections for millions of Americans."

There were security issues with Facebook from the very start.

During a period spanning January 2014 to August 2015, the engineer who looked up his onetime date was just one of fifty-two Facebook employees fired for exploiting their access to user data. Men who looked up the Facebook profiles of women they were interested in made up the vast majority of engineers who abused their privileges.

And it was worse than you could have thought, right from the start.

One engineer used the data to confront a woman who had traveled with him on a European vacation; the two had gotten into a fight during the trip, and the engineer tracked her to her new hotel after she left the room they had been sharing.

But, to me, the worst of the security violations were the ones that were part of Facebook's income plan.

They focused on Facebook because of its cheap and easy targeting features for amplifying campaign ads. Parscale used Facebook's microtargeting tools to reach voters by matching the campaign's own email lists with Facebook's user lists.

Another thing has remained consistent from the start:

The task of deciding what Facebook would and would not allow on its platform fell to a group of employees who had loosely assumed roles of content moderators, and they sketched out early ideas that essentially boiled down to "If something makes you feel bad in your gut, take it down." These guidelines were passed along in emails or in shared bits of advice in the office cafeteria. There were lists of previous examples of items Facebook had removed, but without any explanation or context behind those decisions. It was, at best, ad hoc.

The content moderation began ad hoc, and continued to be so, through the 2020 election. There were no considered and thought-out rules, just decisions that became their own stare decisis.

Kendall quickly crafted a few lines stating that the company would not accept advertisements that incited hate or violence. He did not get approval from his bosses, and Zuckerberg did not weigh in. It was all very informal; there was no legal vetting of the one-sheet policy paper.

Misogyny. Data Mining. Privacy violations. Blindness to systemic biases. Surveillance.

It was all there from the beginning. From the way Zuckerberg started Facebook, the way he grew it, and the way he has spent his years at the helm squashing competition‚Äďas well as regulation.

If you want to read something about how technology and those who use it are making the world a better place‚Äďavoid this book. Because it's both terrifying and damning.

Within a year of joining Facebook, Stamos had unearthed a major problem on the platform. But no one was responding to his reports.

Short take: It's even worse than you thought, even if you thought it was really really bad.

Publisher: Harper

 Rating: 8/10