In response to a string of very bad headlines and a catastrophic outage of all of the company's services this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly posted a message on Tuesday that he says he sent to all of his employees, reassuring them that Facebook is not evil.
After a day of damning congressional testimony from a former employee who walked away with a trove of internal documents that suggest Facebook is well aware of all that it's doing wrong, Mark Zuckerberg dashed off a note to Facebook employees just to say, on a Tuesday, "Hey everyone: it's been quite a week."
Zuck then went ahead and posted the whole 1300-word memo for the public to read, because, as he's done in the past during crisis PR moments, he wants to do his plainspoken best to tell everyone there's nothing to see here, and Facebook is all about people connecting and sharing with loved ones — and it's not about angry uncles, divisive content, the downfall of democracy, and fomenting genocide.
He began with an acknowledgment about Monday’s six-hour outage, which he said was the “worst outage we’ve had in years,” and he said the team had been “debriefing how we can strengthen our systems against this kind of failure”
Then the bullshit begins:
“This was also a reminder of how much our work matters to people. The deeper concern with an outage like this isn't how many people switch to competitive services or how much money we lose, but what it means for the people who rely on our services to communicate with loved ones, run their businesses, or support their communities.”
Zuckerberg has spent years gaslighting us about the pure and noble intentions of the company, and this stands in sharp contrast to many of the things that whistleblower Frances Haugen said before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday.
"You can declare moral bankruptcy, you can admit you did something wrong," Haugen said, speaking to Zuckerberg and Facebook. Haugen's revelations, published over the past few weeks by the Wall Street Journal, include multiple examples of the company internally acknowledging harm and still putting profit ahead of the public good.
Haugen appeared particularly incensed on Tuesday about the fact that the civic integrity team she worked on was dissolved right after the 2020 election — and she argued that this allowed misinformation and Trump's stolen-election lies to proliferate in the two months following the election, leading to the January 6th riot.
But back to Zuck:
"Second, now that today's testimony is over, I wanted to reflect on the public debate we're in. I'm sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn't reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health. It's difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don't recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted."
If this were true, and most Facebook employees believed this, why are there so many reports of morale at the company sinking over the last couple of years, and reports like this from former employees that confirm the dismal mood over there.
Zuck rails against the idea that the company doesn't care about its impact, arguing that they invest heavily in research and integrity to fight the very things Haugen says are the company's biggest flaws. "If we didn't care about fighting harmful content, then why would we employ so many more people dedicated to this than any other company in our space -- even ones larger than us?" Zuckerberg says.
But none of what Haugen testified about rings false — why would Facebook have bent over backwards not to upset Trump and Trump voters if profit weren't its biggest motive? And how can anyone believe that a publicly traded company doesn't put profit above all else?
"At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That's just not true. For example, one move that has been called into question is when we introduced the Meaningful Social Interactions change to News Feed. This change showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family -- which we did knowing it would mean people spent less time on Facebook, but that research suggested it was the right thing for people's well-being. Is that something a company focused on profits over people would do?"
Haugen argued that the 2018 switch to "Meaningful Social Interactions" in the algorithm was a boon for high-engagement content — with the company well aware that content that makes people angry tends to get the highest engagement.
Facebook is now on PR push to counter that line of argument, with Monika Bickert, vice president of content policy, jumping on CNN yesterday to immediately say, "that's not true," and "We do the opposite, in fact, and if you look in our transparency center, you can actually see that we demote, meaning we reduce the visibility of engagement bait, click bait."
Yeah but are they stopping your angry QAnon uncle from posting 100 articles a day about how Biden is a child-eating alien?
"The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical. We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don't want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don't know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed."
Even Haugen acknowledged that Facebook and its employees are not "malevolent," but there is a circling-the-drain quality to the documents and emails she shared — and the New York Times' Kevin Roose, who's been writing about Facebook for a decade, acknowledged that the leaked documents show a company in decline.
Interpreting the tone and background intent of the documents, Roose concludes, "Facebook is in trouble," and he sees the signs of a company in an existential crisis as its relevance wanes.
"Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize," Roose writes. "It’s a cloud of existential dread that hangs over an organization whose best days are behind it, influencing every managerial priority and product decision and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out."
Roose points, in particular, to Facebook's misguided effort to build Instagram Kids, which is clearly a growth strategy but which Zuckerberg wants us to believe is a benevolent gift to parents.
"The reality is that young people use technology," Zuckerberg writes. "Think about how many school-age kids have phones. Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe. We're deeply committed to doing industry-leading work in this area."
But, he adds, "given all the questions about whether this would actually be better for kids, we've paused that project to take more time to engage with experts and make sure anything we do would be helpful."
Zuck concludes, " I'm proud of everything we do to keep building the best social products in the world and grateful to all of you for the work you do here every day."
Methinks the CEO doth protest too much.
Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images