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Facebook’s Tipping Point of Bad Behavior?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

The NY Times has published a long piece about how Facebook has responded (and failed to respond) to various crises over the past three years: Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis. It does not paint a very flattering portrait of the company. This part is particularly damning (italics mine):

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and it faced a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

Are you fucking kidding me? Facebook paid to promote the right-wing & anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that George Soros pays protestors? Shame on you, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of Facebook leadership team. Legitimizing this garbage actively hurts our democracy. On Twitter, The Guardian’s senior tech reporter Julia Carrie Wong gets at what is so wrong and different about this behavior:

There’s something about this Soros story that feels significantly different than the usual Facebook scandal. Most recent negative Facebook stories are issues relating to challenges of scale and a tendency toward passivity.

Facebook’s standard playbook is to admit that they made a mistake by being slow to react, remind us of their good intentions, then promise to do better. It’s the aw geez who woulda thought in the dorm room that we would have to deal with all these tricky issues defense.

This has been very effective for a company that still gets the benefit of the doubt. No one would ever suggest that Facebook *wanted* to bring about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya or lynchings in rural Indian villages. They just were in a little over their heads.

But this Soros thing is different. This is no passive failure. It’s a malevolent action taken against groups who criticize Facebook for things that Facebook admits it has failed at. It takes advantage of and contributes to the most poisonous aspects of our public discourse.

It makes you wonder if the “ah geez” thing has just been an act all along. Mike Monteiro, who speaks and writes about ethics in the design profession, is surprised that Facebook’s employees haven’t spoken out more.

What surprises me is that Facebook employees are still at their desks after finding that their company was actively attempting to discredit activists. No doubt some of them are shook. No doubt some of them will make public statements against their company’s policy. And those are needed. No doubt there will be internal spirited conversations within the company. And those are needed as well. But there won’t be a walk-out. I say this hours after the article was released. But I doubt that I’ll have to come back to this paragraph and revise it. I wish I wasn’t so sure of that. But I am.