On November 4 last year, the day after the US presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg makes a revolutionary decision. It is clear that the election results are going to be heavily fought. For the first time, Facebook adapts the News Feed algorithm to provide users with more reliable information.
In the following days, Facebook feels “quieter and more friendly”, as company employees call it themselves. “They were happy and excited to see checked news at the top and not all those bloggers and websites that kept spreading the untruth that the election had been stolen,” said Sheera Frenkel, journalist of The New York Times who spent fifteen years of research on Facebook.
Frankel today, together with her colleague Cecilia Kang, is releasing the book A Disgusting Truth, about the consequences of Facebooks unbridled growth. November 4 is not really a revolution, says Frenkel. “As with so many things, the company announced that the modified algorithm is a temporary change, which they would reverse within weeks. And that‘s what they did.”
This event during those hectic political weeks in November 2020 underlines the central point of Kang and Frenkel: growth is above all things in Facebook. Negative social consequences for the company are still in second place.
Everything at the social media company is planned and conceived, the two writers at the office of their US agency in New York tell. Frenkel: “When we started this book, we saw Facebook as Frankenstein; the monster that escaped the control of its creators. But Facebook’s problems are ingrained; people need to spend as much time as possible to release as much data as possible. This isn‘t a runaway monster, it’s a deliberately built machine.”
A machine that violates users‘ rights to privacy on a large scale and is far too often a driver of misinformation, politicians in Europe and America are now also finding politicians in Europe and America. There are slowly bills in Brussels and Washington that force Facebook and other tech companies to change.
“I haven’t seen the energy and need to regulate tech companies before,” says Kang. At the same time, the journalist believes that it is a very difficult job for politics. Parties are far apart about how they want to control the tech world.
In addition, Facebook‘s lobbying power is immense, says Kang. “Facebook spends 17 million euros a year influencing politicians, no company in America spends so much money on it. They call that “protecting their earning model.” Republicans in particular are sensitive to that, they don’t want to be seen as the party that harms or slows down business.”
Facebooks dealing with politics ended up in a bizarre roller coaster in the Trump years. In him, the immense spagate the company is in revealed: the platform needed Trump for the large amount of interaction he brought to the site, but at the same time the president was a source of misinformation.
“Mark Zuckerberg told Trump that he was one of the most popular people on Facebook,” says Frenkel. “He went to the White House and showed figures of his huge number of followers and told how people loved sharing his posts.”
“Facebook knew that much of Trump‘s popularity was due to its ability to send inflammatory messages, which were often factually incorrect,” says Kang. “Time and time again, Facebook’s leadership accepted it, and that led to tensions internally. Many employees found it indigestible.”
At any price
These are events that show for Kang and Frenkel that, despite the many promises, Facebook is not going to change on its own. Kang: “As long as growth remains the main goal and the business model remains focused to keep users on the site as much as possible, even if it‘s harmful, the course remains as it is.”
The writers note that in recent years, since the major scandals and crises, Zuckerberg himself has attracted control of his company more and more.
“Change should really come from him,” says Frenkel. “But that would mean something needs to change in his personality. We don’t see any sign of that at the moment. The core remains: growth at any price, preferably as fast as possible.”
With the cooperation of Nando Kasteleijn.