The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Facebook’s early decisions set the stage for scandal

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, gets ready to testify at a congressional hearing last fall. The company has faced scrutiny for its role in elections as well as its other ventures, such as a cryptocurrency. (Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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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 is given a hero’s welcome. In encounters with young engineers, Zuckerberg comes across as a plucky coder. He boils 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 falls short when the first clues of election interference emerge 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 writes with verve — he calls Facebook a “twenty-first-century corporate Gatsby, careless in its privileges, self-involved in serving its own needs and pleasures” — but “Facebook” feels under-theorized. His deft observations don’t stretch far enough to make monumental conclusions.

Even Levy admits he hit a wall. “Fishing for rosebuds is a futile pursuit with Mark Zuckerberg,” Levy concludes. “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.

As with Kirkpatrick a decade ago, Facebook agreed to give access to Levy, who had previously done the same kind of thing with Google and has covered technology for decades. He gets the official take on how Facebook discovered the Russian propaganda program 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 targeting, cracked open.

But Levy struggles to obtain the kind of soul-searching one might expect with so much access. “Maybe it just takes someone far better than me to do this,” Zuckerberg admits at his most introspective, during the last of seven interviews Levy conducted with him for the book.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, who plays a co-starring role in the book, seems more transformed than her boss. Levy makes her cry at one point. She expresses the frustration, the loss of innocence that escapes Zuckerberg. But Levy also paints a picture of how her authority in the company is limited to everything that isn’t engineering, the sacred skill that Zuckerberg oversees.

It’s easier — for anyone — to spot Facebook’s flaws in hindsight. Levy is able to trace the origins of the Cambridge Analytica scheme to Facebook’s disregard for the privacy of the first users. Early pushes for growth set the stage for fake news to flourish. In discussing the development of the News Feed and advertising, Levy foreshadows the future misuse by rogue actors, including Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the group charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller with interfering in the election.

Seen through the lens of where Facebook is now, elements of the past take on attributes they might not have originally. We hear about Zuckerberg as a toddler orchestrating wars among his Ninja Turtles, something millions of other kids probably did, too — only for the boy genius, it now signals an inclination toward organizing society. Similarly, his playing of games such as Risk and Civilization seemed to predestine him to amass great power. On the other hand, the offhand observation by his parents that he didn’t consider other options for college besides Harvard can be read as him thinking too narrowly when later faced with tough decisions as a chief executive.

Certain of Zuckerberg’s beliefs that shape the company are portrayed as givens. Most critical is what Levy describes as his “passion” for free speech, going back to Facebook’s early days as a start-up. That principle has enabled the spread of hate speech, political lies and conspiracies that have divided societies in ways Zuckerberg never imagined. Facebook set aside more drastic measures to curb disinformation, Levy writes, because they “would be a violation of Zuckerberg’s core belief.” Understanding what shapes Zuckerberg’s beliefs is illuminating, when they have such an outsize impact on the world.

But Levy lingers too long on Facebook’s early years before getting to the cataclysms. Nearly two-thirds of the book passes before we get to the election, the part of Facebook’s history that the company hasn’t already spilled its guts on.

During those moments of crisis, it doesn’t feel like we’re a fly on the wall in Zuckerberg’s Aquarium, the glass-walled conference room that Facebookers have been trained not to gawk at when they walk by.

The story of Cambridge Analytica, for instance, is told from the perspective of the people who exploited Facebook’s lax rules and the journalists who uncovered the machinations — not by sticking it to the people who allowed such a catastrophe. Facebook lays the blame on its outside law firm. Levy lets the company get away with a general sense of corporate failure by characterizing it as “what Facebook did not do,” rather than showing which individuals dropped the ball. We’re back inside Facebook only when Zuckerberg is preparing to appear in front of Congress, one of the consequences of the Cambridge Analytica revelation.

Levy doesn’t shy from asking the tough questions. He tries to hold Zuckerberg accountable for providing a “platform for troublemakers.” But he can’t get past the veneer of Facebook’s talking points. “We have a lot of work to do,” Zuckerberg says, one of several permutations of his mea culpas (he has a tendency to drop Latin phrases to motivate his troops — such as “Carthago delenda est” — Carthage must be destroyed).

But Levy seems at times too charmed by his access. When suddenly Facebook is in the hot seat after the 2016 election (which Levy euphemizes as “epic PR problems”), he comes across as in awe that the company didn’t unfriend him and break off its commitment to share its side of the story.

Ultimately, Levy struggles to provide answers for the existential problems he raises 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?

The Inside Story

By Steven Levy

Blue Rider.
583 pp. $30