What's actually the problem with the world's biggest social media platform? Is it misinformation? Lack of regulation? That it rots the brains of children? Or that it makes us shrill, annoying caricatures of ourselves?
An Ugly Truth, by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, pins all these problems and more on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. The authors don't hold back: Before even opening the book, one encounters remarkably unflattering images of Zuckerberg's and Sandberg's faces on the cover. As the authors explore the rise of Facebook, they maintain this tenor: The two executives are the twin poles of power at Facebook, and together are responsible for a vast set of the world's problems.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg certainly come off as unsavory characters—the CEO calls early Facebook users "dumb fucks" for blithely giving away their personal information. Sandberg screams at employees in public. Despite her heralded "lean-in" feminism, the COO picks favorites among women at the company.
But An Ugly Truth packs so many separate lines of attack into one narrative that even the biggest Facebook critic will be left wondering what the coherent critique here is. Is Facebook bad because its News Feed flattens the world and amplifies toxic partisanship and misinformation? Perhaps, but then the authors attack Facebook's decision to prioritize Groups, a tool for connecting like-minded people and escaping the News Feed.
The authors are quick to defend Facebook from charges of left-leaning bias. On the revelation that Facebook engineers actively tried to stop Republicans from trending in the Trending Topics, they tell us, the engineers "were not pushing a liberal or conservative agenda." The fact that Sandberg was a top donor to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign is a PR problem, but when another Facebook exec sits behind Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing, it's a company-wide crisis.
If there is a single through-line in An Ugly Truth, it's this: Believing false things is one of the worst things that can happen to an individual, and Facebook inaugurated a new era of widespread misinformation. The First Amendment right to free speech isn't absolute, and no one has a right to "algorithmic amplification." In a better world, platforms would work hand in hand with "disinformation experts," left-wing civil rights groups, and "trusted organizations" like the CDC to ceaselessly protect users from believing false things. They would prioritize news from "respectable" sources and downplay questionable conservative partisans.
The problem with this framing, of course, is that we already live in the world Frenkel and Kang dream of. Facebook does coordinate with the federal government, it does censor theories the World Health Organization and CDC consider objectionable, and it does tag posts about COVID with an informational bar urging you to listen to the experts. It does "shadowban" content it thinks is misleading, and it purges the accounts of individuals who express political beliefs beyond the pale. Those actions haven't fixed the problem Frenkel and Kang identify, because they can't: There's never been a time when misinformation wasn't an endemic part of human life, or when the line between safe truths and dangerous lies was settled and accepted by all. Facebook centralizes many of our disputes and may be responsible for a crappier public discourse. But the authors yearn for a solution to basic human foibles, crafted by our bien pensant elites. It's not clear that such a solution could exist, and it's certainly not clear that Frenkel and Kang's preferred authorities have the wisdom to carry them out.
The punch that lands cleanest from Frenkel and Kang is the critique of Zuckerberg's worldview—that "connection" is the great good Facebook can provide. Over and over, Zuckerberg tells us Facebook is in the business of "connecting the world," but rarely can he articulate reasons that connection is good for us on a social or personal level. The authors highlight a particularly damning internal memo by exec and Zuckerberg ally Andrew Bosworth. "We connect people. Period. That's why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. … The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it." Bosworth later claimed the memo was meant to inspire debate, but it reads as an accurate mission statement.
There's a book to be written about Facebook's vision of connection—a world where users are fed the content and connections the algorithm thinks they want, with little regard for their edification or real-world effects. Unfortunately, An Ugly Truth isn't that book.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination
by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
Harper, 352 pp., $29.99
Published under: Book reviews