For some time now, Facebook has copped to being “slow.”
Confronted with any question about Russian interference on the platform, or the scourge of misinformation, Facebook has gotten comfortable saying it was “slow to recognize” the problem, before rattling off a list of every step it has since taken to solve it.
Everyone now agrees that Facebook was slow. But why was the company slow? In a major new report today, the New York Times sets out to understand why: what took Facebook so long to identify the most significant security issues on its platform. Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas interviewed more than 50 people to tell the tale.
The result is a portrait of fractured leadership that too often sought to delegate key decisions to others. At the same time, the company mounted a rigorous effort to promote key friends in Congress, undermine its corporate and legislative enemies, and push conspiracy theories and opposition research onto reporters. The company had worked with Definers, a dark-arts public-relations firm that specializes in information warfare, but Facebook severed the relationship on Wednesday following the New York Times report.
The entire piece is a must-read for anyone who reads The Interface. But two key points stand out:
The long knives have come for Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s charismatic chief operating officer has largely escaped scrutiny for her role in the company’s failures to protect the platform. With this story, that time has come to an end. The reporters trace how Sandberg and her hand-picked lobbyists, Marne Levine and Joel Kaplan, pressured its security team not to fully disclose Russian activity on the platform. She and Kaplan argued that doing so would rile conservatives, threatening the business. (This ultimately happened anyway, over far less consequential matters, and the business held up fine.)
Sandberg also personally (and successfully) lobbied the Democratic senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, against criticizing Facebook in strong terms. And she offered public support for the noxious Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which has put the lives of many sex workers at great risk, in hopes of shoring up support among Republican lawmakers.
When I checked in with some former Facebookers today, their biggest takeaway from the story was that internal doubts about Sandberg were now finally taking hold in the popular narrative around the company.
Facebook fights dirty. Most public-relations efforts are relatively benign. But somewhere around the time that a company becomes a global superpower, it gets the idea that it can bend reality to its will by hiring unscrupulous PR agencies to advance their pet issues while leaving no trace of their involvement.
Facebook, which has spent the past two years preaching the gospel of “transparency,” has leaned hard into this idea. Some of their hired assassins work for Definers Public Affairs, a Washington-based agency that mounted an astroturf campaign in an effort to drag Google and Twitter into the Russia issue. It worked. From the report:
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.
So the left hand fights misinformation in the News Feed, while the right hand seeds fear, uncertainty, and doubt to reporters. The conspiracy theories are coming from inside the house.
Why is Facebook fighting so hard to drag down its competitors? Deepa Seetharaman had one answer, in the day’s other great behind-the-scenes story about Facebook. Morale at the company, which previously was quite high, experienced a significant decline this year. She writes:
Amid a plunge in the stock price, ongoing leadership turmoil and critical media coverage, just over half of employees said they were optimistic about Facebook’s future, down 32 percentage points from the year earlier, according to the survey, which was taken by nearly 29,000 employees. Fifty-three percent said Facebook was making the world better, down 19 percentage points from a year ago.
As a result, Seetharaman reports, more Facebook employees have begun to look for the exits. In October, employees said they planned to stay at Facebook another 3.9 years, down from 4.3 years last year. And 12 percent said they would leave in less than a year, up from 10 percent the year before.
At the Washington Post, Lizza Dwoskin talked to one of Instagram’s original employees, Bailey Richardson, who quit shortly after cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in September. She recently deleted her account. “It feels like we’re all addicted to a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore,” she told Dwoskin. “So I wanted to make space for something that really does.”
These employee departures, of course, have always been the most immediate threat to Facebook in the wake of the disclosures of the past two years. The Cambridge Analytica scandal may have put a dent in the company’s stock price, but the real danger is that people won’t want to work there anymore. If employees were honest on their surveys, more than 3,000 of them will be gone by this time next year.
But there’s a new threat to Facebook, too: the incoming Democratic Congress. David Cicilline, the top Democrat on the House antitrust subcommittee, had this to say after reading the Times’ story:
”It is long past time for us to take action. I am confident that, despite Facebook’s best efforts to buy Congress’s silence, the will of the American people will prevail. Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans.”
The Amazon deal
The debate over Amazon’s sweetheart deals with New York and Virginia extended into a second day. I heard from lots of you, and your feedback was mixed. A quick sample:
“The biggest buyers of cloud services are banks and the federal government, hence New York and D.C.
Bezos played the politicians like drums to extract taxpayer subsidies at the expense of other, small businesses who have a higher corporate tax burden, just like Musk and every owner of a sports franchise not named Joe Robbie. Government is designed to protect the big against the small.”
Reader K.D. was more sympathetic:
The greater NYC and D.C. areas have some of the highest concentrations of tech talent in the United States, are highly visible, and have a pipeline of future workers from the areas’ many educational institutions. Why should Amazon limit the benefits to itself, and its shareholders, of its new HQ’s location?
In the Wall Street Journal, Laura Stevens and Shayndi Raice walk us through how Amazon made its decision. The company elected to create two new regional offices instead of a singular “HQ2” in September after coming to the belief that no one metropolitan area could supply Amazon with all the workers it will need to put a tax on all economic activity.
Aside from New York and Virginia, Amazon also elected to build a smaller “operations facility” in Nashville. The remaining 17 finalists were left with nothing, despite having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per city on the quest, according to the report. Here’s a representative quote from a losing city:
Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, had his own opinions about the contest. His city entered but wasn’t a finalist.
Amazon “used their brand not to have any social impact,” he said. “They used it to pit one community against the other and everybody fell for it. Us included.”
Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the deal has been muted, aside from some happy talk by New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor, and Virginia’s senators. But New York’s senators, as Makena Kelly noted today, initially said nothing:
They’ve released no public statements, and they declined to comment when reached by The Verge. The silence could be a sign that both senators are keeping a low profile as the more moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic party face off over the controversial Amazon deal.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the lawmakers who voiced their objection to an NYC headquarters, tweeting yesterday that “displacement is not community development. Investing in luxury condos is not the same thing as investing in people and families. Shuffling working class people out of a community does not improve their quality of life.”
Later in the day, though, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand posted a statement signaling her disdain: “One of the wealthiest companies in history should not be receiving financial assistance from the taxpayers while too many New York families struggle to make ends meet.”
But hey, won’t those 50,000 new Amazon employees eventually leave and start their own companies, turning Regional Offices 1 and 2 into thriving tech hubs? Well, they haven’t in Seattle, Dan Primack reports:
One of the most remarkable parts of Amazon’s success is how few other successes it has spawned, particularly in its home market of Seattle. In an age of plentiful unicorns, there seems to be only one (Convoy) founded by Amazon vets near the mothership.
The controversy over the deal didn’t really seem to grow worse on Wednesday. But it didn’t seem to get much better, either.
Facebook released written responses to questions US senators had asked the company earlier this year. There was a lot of deflection and dodging, Sarah Frier reports, but the company had this to say about a China return:
“In keeping with these commitments, rigorous human rights due diligence and careful consideration of free expression and privacy implications would constitute important components of any decision on entering China,” the company told U.S. senators. “Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, and no decisions have been made around the conditions under which any possible future service might be offered in China.“
Charlie Warzel asks Twitter what they’re going to do about the president tweeting unfounded claims of voter fraud. Twitter says they will get back to us all in the New Year.
Waterfront Toronto, a Canadian government agency, and Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Alphabet Inc. are planning to develop 12 acres of the Toronto waterfront. Ava Kofman reports that Google’s secrecy is turning the community against the project:
From the start, activists, technology researchers, and some government officials have been skeptical about the idea of putting Google, or one of its sister companies, in charge of a city. Their suspicions about turning part of Toronto into a corporate test bed were triggered, at first, by the company’s history of unethical corporate practices and surreptitious data collection. They have since been borne out by Quayside’s secret and undemocratic development process, which has been plagued by a lack of public input — what one critic has called “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” In recent months, a series of prominent resignations from advisory board members, along with organized resistance from concerned residents, have added to the growing public backlash against the project.
The Internet Association, which represents members including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, is opening up a UK office, Issie Lapowsky reports.
E-cigarette maker Juul is one of the biggest consumer tech companies of its generation, and it has thrived on social media, where teens share endless memes and vaping videos. In an effort to stave off further regulation, the company is deleting its Facebook and Instagram accounts, Rachel Becker reports.
As for video, “YouTube will only be used for posting testimonials of former adult smokers who have switched to the JUUL system, in part to support online content on JUUL.com.” To keep users from posting their own DIY Juul ads, the company says it will rely on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to ban posts that make smoking or vaping look appealing.
PayPal moved to block BitChute, a YouTube clone popular with right-wing vloggers and conspiracy theorists. When Julia Alexander wrote about it in March, the front page was littered with videos about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Pizzagate. It’s unclear what the final straw was.
People raised $1 billion for charitable causes on Facebook. Nice!
It’s never a good sign when the head of your latest murder clone decamps for greener pastures. Josh Constine reports that the person running the would-be TikTok killer Lasso has left for Netflix, and also that Lasso is off to a slow start.
Once again Kevin Systrom goes onstage somewhere and is not forced to answer exactly what led to his departure at Instagram, to my everlasting torment.
Taylor Lorenz writes about the unlikely way that Instagram stars are making money: Lightoom presets. It’s amazing that something that has largely fallen out of favor — Instagram filters! — has somehow turned into big business.
Presets are custom filters applied using Adobe Lightroom, a photo-editing tool. Influencers run all their photos through a specific preset in order to cultivate a specific aesthetic and make their feed look cohesive. Influencers have relied on Lightroom for years, but it wasn’t until June of this year that Adobe finally introduced the ability to create and share presets entirely on mobile, and a preset boom was born.
Maddy Corbin, who lives in Indianapolis and has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, spent months in Lightroom, “playing around, figuring out what kind of aesthetic I had and what colors best represented my brand,” she said. She eventually landed on a pastel-pink look that her peers were happy to pay for. Now her followers share their own photos, washed in Corbin’s exact shade of pink, using Corbin’s preset under the hashtag #MADDYCORBINPRESETS. The tagged photos all look like an extension of Corbin’s feed.
Snap is facing a shareholder lawsuit over its IPO, and Alison Frankel reports that the government has requested more information in what the company believes is an effort to determine whether it provided adequate disclosures about competition from Instagram. (My personal opinion is that Snap was extremely transparent about the many severe challenges to its business in its S1!)
Tinder’s well respected chief product officer, Brian Norgard, is returning to investing and company-starting. Tinder flies under the radar, but it’s consistently one of the cleverest and most forward-thinking social apps around. Norgard wrote a Medium post about leaving.
Natasha Singer and Prashant S. Rao compare and contrast the personal data that companies are willing to make available to them depending on where they live:
We each asked Facebook for copies of our web-browsing data, as well as any data the company acquired about us from data brokers or other services. We made similar requests of Twitter and LinkedIn, which can also collect details about users’ activities on other sites as well as personal details from third parties like employers or advertisers.
None provided us with copies of that raw information.
Brian Feldman asks Tim Wu to make a succinct case against Facebook:
WU: That the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were illegal at the time and should be undone. I think it would put more checks on their power. I also think that the tech-lash going on is its own power. Ultimately, when there’s unaccountable power in the United States, there’s a constitutional revulsion. Whoever leads the case to break up Facebook will have the political winds and the public at his back. The case against Facebook is easy.
Not quite a social feature, but what Google is doing with low-light photography deserves more fanfare than it has gotten. It’s going to enable people to capture far more of their lives, in far better detail, than ever before. From where I sit, it’s a sincere technological breakthrough.
Amazon’s HQ2 stunt accomplished the rare feat of uniting one of Congress’ most liberal Democrats and the conservative National Review. Veronique de Rugy writes:
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Ocasio-Cortez is mostly correct on this matter, and her conservative critics are wrong. Handouts like this to Amazon and other prominent companies are appalling in their cronyism, pure and simple. I agree that she doesn’t understand economics and that her socialist ideal is a recipe for fiscal and economic disaster. But her conservative critics reveal their own economic misunderstanding when they support targeted tax breaks as a means of creating jobs.
Danny Crichton is here to speak on behalf of giant corporations getting billions of dollars in tax incentives to do things they were already going to do anyway:
Amazon’s process hopefully woke up a number of slumbering city governments to the reality that their hometowns are not relatively as attractive as other cities.
Wake up, Tuscaloosa! You’re never going to win any business if you don’t transform yourself into New York City.
And finally …
Google creates messaging apps the way other companies create Slack channels. But nothing could prepare me for the extremely real and hilarious launch of GOOGLE MAPS MESSAGES.
That “Message” button is now coming to Google Maps for Android and iOS, along with an inbox view for your conversations. Shops and restaurants that have a Business Profile with Google will sport a new “Message” button in their listing, alongside the usual call shortcut. It coincides with a broader launch of the messaging feature to additional countries.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and suggestions for how to boost Facebook morale: firstname.lastname@example.org.