How Facebook’s early decisions set the stage for scandal

Christina Passariello

THE WASHINGTONG POST – Facebook has already made its mark on history. It’s not the legacy Mark Zuckerberg would have chosen for it 16 years ago in his dorm room. But the social media platform has been intertwined in politics and social discord ever since its failure to spot the manipulation of its services during the 2016 presidential race. There has been much reflection about what led to that calamity — and whether anything has changed ahead of the big test of the 2020 election.

Steven Levy set out to write Facebook in the good old days of the summer of 2016. The book opens with Zuckerberg’s first visit to Africa, where the tech conqueror was given a hero’s welcome. In encounters with young engineers, Zuckerberg came across as a plucky coder. He boiled down his philosophy into “two real principles” that come from engineering: “The first is that you think of every problem as a system. And every system can be better.”

How that approach fell short when the first clues of election interference emerged two months later gives Levy’s project its purpose, infusing it with urgency and tension. Facebook’s well-trod backstory takes on new meaning now that the company’s choices around issues like privacy, free speech and growth at any cost have led to years of crises.

Levy wrote with verve — he called Facebook a “twenty-first-century corporate Gatsby, careless in its privileges, self-involved in serving its own needs and pleasures” — but Facebook feels under-theorised. His deft observations don’t stretch far enough to make monumental conclusions.

Even Levy admitted he hit a wall. “Fishing for rosebuds is a futile pursuit with Mark Zuckerberg,” Levy concluded. “Facebook may have to change, but Zuckerberg doesn’t believe he has to.”

There is already an entire library of books devoted to Facebook, with more to come this year. The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick in 2010 was the first book the company agreed to cooperate on. The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich became the basis for the movie The Social Network. Last year’s Zucked by Roger McNamee was one of the first turncoat tales — the Zuckerberg confidante made part of his venture capital fortune on Facebook then became a harsh critic of the company.

Two New York Times reporters, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, got a seven-figure deal to write about Facebook’s crises, and their book is expected to publish later this year. Coming in April is No Filter, a profile of Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing site, by Bloomberg News reporter Sarah Frier.

Like with Kirkpatrick a decade ago, Facebook agreed to give access to Levy. He got the official take on how Facebook discovered the Russian propaganda programme during the election and the internal chaos when the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the scheme to obtain the private data of 71 million Americans to use in political targetting, cracked open.

But Levy struggled to obtain the kind of soul-searching one might expect with so much access.

Ultimately, Levy struggled to provide answers for the existential problems he raised and to make sense of the constant flood of Facebook drama.

The attempt to weave in episodes from as recently as a few months ago, such as the botched launch of a cryptocurrency, a record privacy fine and antitrust scrutiny, raises the question of where to stop with a story that’s ongoing — and at what point the news takes on enough significance to become history.

The issue we’re left with is this: Is Facebook doomed to repeat its past mistakes?