What Does It Mean for Facebook to Be at War?

Nov 20, 2018, 10:00 PM

Vanity Fair

Januaries past, Mark Zuckerberg has set New Year’s resolutions that seemed designed to cast a human veneer over a man whose personality borders on robotic: things like visiting every U.S. state, only eating meat from animals he killed himself, and wearing a tie every day. This most recent January, Zuckerberg’s goal was more prosaic, if infinitely more complex: to fix Facebook. “We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools,” he wrote on—where else?—Facebook. “If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.”

Fast-forward to June—past the Cambridge Analytica scandal, myriad security and privacy foibles, and critical reporting detailing how Facebook leadership dropped the ball dating back to 2016—and it now seems clear that Zuckerberg completely misunderstood what his company needed to do to fix itself. At the time, critics were calling on Facebook to reform its approach to data privacy, to curbing hate speech, and to be more transparent about its efforts to keep the platform’s powerful tools out of the hands of propagandists. Instead, as The Wall Street Journal reports, Zuckerberg told employees that he was putting the company on a war footing to protect its good name.

During times of peace, executives can move more slowly and ensure that everybody is on board with key decisions, he said during the June meeting, according to people familiar with the remarks. But with Facebook under siege from lawmakers, investors, and angry users, he needed to act more decisively, the people said.

The episode is revealing in that it suggests Zuckerberg still thinks Facebook’s core issue is a communications problem, rather than a substantive one. He’s seemed contrite in press calls and before lawmakers, professing to understand Facebook’s shortcomings as a product. But internally, his response to criticism is more self-righteous. During a Q&A session with employees last week, for example, Zuckerberg reportedly called recent negative coverage “bullshit.” He also reportedly blamed C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg and her team for the “hysteria” that accompanied the revelation that millions of users’ personal data had been siphoned by Mercer-backed firm Cambridge Analytica, complaining that Facebook “wasn’t effectively managing the response.” (A person familiar with Zuckerberg’s thinking told the Journal that he does not recall using the word “hysteria.”) And he’s been frustrated at Facebook’s response to criticism over the past year, pressuring senior executives to “make progress faster” on issues like securing Facebook’s platform and reversing slow user growth. (In a statement to the Journal, a Facebook spokesperson said the company has “made massive investments in safety and security. While we know we have more work to do, we believe we’ve made progress.”)

To wit, a good portion of Zuckerberg’s energy seems to be focused on improving Facebook’s messaging—he reportedly blamed leaks from employees on “bad morale” spurred by negative press—rather than fixing the fundamental flaws in its product. Though Facebook has made a public effort to fix things—including publishing new Community Standards Enforcement Reports in a bid for more transparency in how it’s policing its own platform—recent reports have shown its executive team doubling down on P.R. as the situation has deteriorated. In a bombshell story last week, The New York Times reported that the company employed Republican opposition-research firm Definers Public Affairs to publicize information critical of Facebook’s detractors (a claim both Zuckerberg and Sandberg have denied). The company has also hired former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, a political connoisseur, to shore up the company’s relationship with the European Commission at a pivotal moment. His predecessor, Elliot Schrage, remains at Facebook, and said during Friday’s company Q&A that employee...