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Facebook won’t fix itself

Facebook keeps saying it will do better — then doesn’t.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been apologizing since before the company’s inception — and yet problems continue to mount. The latest development is a New York Times story detailing Facebook’s behind-the-scenes efforts to downplay and deny a string of recent controversies, including the Cambridge Analytica data breach and Russia’s election interference using its platform.

It’s been a rough year for the social media company, which connects more than 2.2 billion people around the world each month. Zuckerberg continues to say he’s sorry, and the company insists it can do better.

But its past highlights a central component of its present and future: Facebook isn’t going to fix itself.

Facebook’s consistent missteps and deflections over the years highlight something that’s a feature of the company, not a bug: It is a major corporation, and its executives are motivated by a myriad of factors, including profit and power. Asking Facebook to get better on its own just isn’t a realistic option.

Does Mark Zuckerberg want to connect the world? Maybe. But he’s also created a major corporation that affects the lives of millions of people, and it’s grown into something that he and the people around him can’t control. According to the Times’s story, they don’t really want to.

While Zuckerberg was apologizing, Sandberg was lobbying

The Times story, published on Monday, chronicles the actions taken by Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and others at and connected to the company to deflect from negative attention on them and sweep under the rug their issues. It chronicles how Facebook lobbied lawmakers looking to potentially crack down on the company and kept its knowledge of Russian meddling in US politics via Facebook from full public view.

In one especially disturbing detail, Facebook employed a Republican opposition research company named Definers to discredit its critics by linking them to liberal billionaire and conservative boogeyman George Soros. The opposition research company also used one of its affiliates to disseminate negative stories about Apple and Google.

All the while, Facebook was out there saying it was trying to do better. Zuckerberg embarked on an apology tour, including in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, and both he and Sandberg made appearances before Congress. It announced new efforts it was taking to combat fake news and bad actors. It said it supported the Honest Ads Act, a bill meant to regulate online political advertising, and would adopt many of the policies proposed on its own.

But as the Times notes, things weren’t as they seemed:

While Facebook had publicly declared itself ready for new federal regulations, Ms. Sandberg privately contended that the social network was already adopting the best reforms and policies available. Heavy-handed regulation, she warned, would only disadvantage smaller competitors.

On Thursday, the day after the Times report came out, Facebook released a new “Community Standards Enforcement Report” to show how it’s trying to police content on its website. Zuckerberg in a blog post also said there were “a number of inaccuracies” in the Times story.

Zuckerberg held a call with reporters on Thursday to discuss the community standards report, but it quickly turned to the Times story. Zuckerberg, clearly aware of the gravity of the situation, twice extended the question and answer session. He said he had no knowledge of the relationship with Definers before the Times story (Facebook has now cut ties with the firm) and acknowledged Facebook still has “a lot more work to do.” When asked about specific changes would make regarding items such as personnel, lobbying, transparency, and his role at the company, Zuckerberg’s responses were vague.

Facebook tried, a little, to fix some problems earlier this year. Wall Street lost it.

The reaction to Facebook’s second-quarter earnings report in July provided a glimpse of one reason the company isn’t eager to take any measures that might somehow slow growth: money.

Facebook saw its biggest one-day drop in history, losing $119 billion in value after reporting slower-than-expected revenue growth during the second three months of the year and saying it expected declines to continue. Zuckerberg acknowledged that the slowed growth was in part the result of losing 1 million European users as a result of new privacy rules enacted there. Calls to delete Facebook after Cambridge Analytica might have also had an effect, as Facebook attracted no new users in the US and Canada.

The results weren’t catastrophic; Facebook remains one of the most valuable companies in the world. But Wall Street’s reaction sent a clear message: Make any move to curtail interactions on its platform — even when forced to do so — and there will be a price to pay.

What a lot of investors like about companies like Facebook is that they have a move-fast-and-break-things, grow-at-all-costs mentality. Show a small sign of losing that, and investors get nervous.

And it’s not just Wall Street that lost money during the summer earnings freak-out — it’s Zuckerberg, too. He has so much money wrapped up in Facebook that its stock plunge cost him $15 billion in a single day.

Facebook keeps saying it will do better and then … doesn’t

Facebook has said time and time again that it will do better — Vox’s Matt Yglesias earlier this year outlined all the times Zuckerberg has said he’s sorry, only to screw up again.

Facebook really is facing challenges here: It’s playing a sort of Whack-a-Mole game with identifying and stomping out nefarious activity on its platform. It identifies one group of bad actors or one tactic, and others soon pop up.

But it’s also fallen short on implementing the improvements it sets out to put in place.

Here’s one example: In April, Facebook, as part of an effort to stave off encroachment from regulators and politicians, said it would start requiring those who buy political or “issue” ads to verify their identities and locations. It was meant to improve transparency of political advertising on the platform and prevent a repeat of 2016, when Russian trolls were buying and running ads on Facebook.

In October, the Times’s Kevin Roose uncovered some fishy-looking ads on Facebook attacking Jennifer Wexton, the Democratic challenger to Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia, in the 2018 midterms. The ads called Wexton an “evil socialist” and showed her next to Nazis. Who was behind them? Facebook knew, but publicly, the disclaimer on the ad read: “Paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.”

Vice News in October tested out Facebook’s new ad transparency tool and found that it was able to buy ads listed as “paid for by” every single sitting US senator, Vice President Mike Pence, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, and the Islamic State.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the Times the Wexton ads were allowed under the company’s policies but that it was working on improving its disclosure feature, adding that Facebook doesn’t disclose the identities of the ad buyers in order to protect their privacy.

Facebook released a tool during the midterms outlining the political and issue ads run on Facebook and Instagram, which it owns, in an effort to increase transparency. But the problem still isn’t entirely solved.

Stone didn’t return a request for comment for this story.

Facebook would rather ask for forgiveness than permission

Facebook’s behavior over the years has exhibited a specific pattern of doing the less-than-ideal thing in the moment and then apologizing for it later.

Facebook came clean about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data of millions of users was breached, the day before investigative stories on it published, even though it had known about the incident for months. The Times’s report chronicles how Sandberg was angry that others within Facebook had looked into Russian activity without their approval because she was worried they had been legally exposed and sought to minimize Russia’s activity in fake news on the site. Sandberg also lobbied members of the Senate, to varying degrees of success, to ease off.

Facebook has also been the subject of conservative criticism that it is biased against Republicans, but that’s not the case. Facebook wants users from all political camps, and the Times stories paint that picture: Joel Kaplan, its vice president for corporate public policy, worked in George W. Bush’s administration and supported now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Definers, the Republican strategy group Facebook contracted pushed reporters to look into its detractors on the left and the right, including online racial justice group Color of Change and pro-Trump social media stars Diamond and Silk. Executives tried to forge or leverage ties with Republican Sen. Richard Burr (NC) and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY).

It’s not clear what, if anything, can address the issues at Facebook. The US government has some options, though there’s no clear avenue officials appear ready to pursue. Users could take action, with more people deleting Facebook, but the company owns Instagram and WhatsApp, which also suck people in. (Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s founders have departed in part over Facebook’s growth tactics.) Morale at Facebook has plunged, with just over half of employees saying they’re optimistic about its future.

Its stock price has steadily declined in recent months, a sign that scandals have taken a toll and that Wall Street has soured on the company even beyond concerns about Facebook’s growth. How low things need to go — in terms of morale, media attention, stock price, or anything else — for Facebook to fix itself is unknown. And the floor might not exist at all.

Update: Updated with Zuckerberg’s comments on Thursday Facebook call.

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