- How the company’s pledge to bring the world together wound up pulling us apart.
By Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, July 26, 2021
Facebook has a save-the-world mission statement—“to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—that sounds like a better fit for a church, and not some little wood-steepled, white-clapboarded, side-of-the-road number but a castle-in-a-parking-lot megachurch, a big-as-a-city-block cathedral, or, honestly, the Vatican. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s C.E.O., announced this mission the summer after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, replacing the company’s earlier and no less lofty purpose: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Both versions, like most mission statements, are baloney.
The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send.” In English, historically, a mission is Christian, and means sending the Holy Spirit out into the world to spread the Word of God: a mission involves saving souls. In the seventeenth century, when “mission” first conveyed something secular, it meant diplomacy: emissaries undertake missions. Scientific and military missions—and the expression “mission accomplished”—date to about the First World War. In 1962, J.F.K. called going to the moon an “untried mission.” “Mission statements” date to the Vietnam War, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began drafting ever-changing objectives for a war known for its purposelessness. (The TV show “Mission: Impossible” débuted in 1966.) After 1973, and at the urging of the management guru Peter Drucker, businesses started writing mission statements as part of the process of “strategic planning,” another expression Drucker borrowed from the military. Before long, as higher education was becoming corporatized, mission statements crept into university life. “We are on the verge of mission madness,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 1979. A decade later, a management journal announced, “Developing a mission statement is an important first step in the strategic planning process.” But by the nineteen-nineties corporate mission statements had moved from the realm of strategic planning to public relations. That’s a big part of why they’re bullshit. One study from 2002 reported that most managers don’t believe their own companies’ mission statements. Research surveys suggest a rule of thumb: the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.
Facebook’s stated mission amounts to the salvation of humanity. In truth, the purpose of Facebook, a multinational corporation with headquarters in California, is to make money for its investors. Facebook is an advertising agency: it collects data and sells ads. Founded in 2004, it now has a market value of close to a trillion dollars. Since 2006, with the launch of its News Feed, Facebook has also been a media company, one that now employs fifteen thousand “content moderators.” (In the U.S., about a third of the population routinely get their news from Facebook. In other parts of the world, as many as two-thirds do.) Since 2016, Facebook has become interested in election integrity here and elsewhere; the company has thirty-five thousand security specialists in total, many of whom function almost like a U.N. team of elections observers. But its early mantra, “Company over country,” still resonates. The company is, in important respects, larger than any country. Facebook possesses the personal data of more than a quarter of the world’s people, 2.8 billion out of 7.9 billion, and governs the flow of information among them. The number of Facebook users is about the size of the populations of China and India combined. In some corners of the globe, including more than half of African nations, Facebook provides free basic data services, positioning itself as a privately owned utility.
“An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination” (Harper), by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, takes its title from a memo written by a Facebook executive in 2016 and leaked to BuzzFeed News. Andrew Bosworth, who created Facebook’s News Feed, apparently wrote the memo in response to employees’ repeated pleas for a change in the service, which, during the U.S. Presidential election that year, they knew to be prioritizing fake news, like a story that Hillary Clinton was in a coma. Some employees suspected that a lot of these stories were being posted by fake users, and even by foreign actors (which was later discovered to be the case). Bosworth wrote:
So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good. . . . That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in.
Bosworth argued that his memo was meant to provoke debate, not to be taken literally, but plainly it spoke to views held within the company. That’s the downside of a delusional sense of mission: the loss of all ethical bearings.
“An Ugly Truth” is the result of fifteen years of reporting. Frenkel and Kang, award-winning journalists for the Times, conducted interviews with more than four hundred people, mostly Facebook employees, past and present, for more than a thousand hours. Many people who spoke with them were violating nondisclosure agreements. Frenkel and Kang relied, too, on a very leaky spigot of “never-reported emails, memos, and white papers involving or approved by top executives.” They did speak to Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, off the record, but Zuckerberg, who had coöperated with a 2020 book, “Facebook: The Inside Story” (Blue Rider), by the Wired editor Steven Levy, declined to talk to them.
Zuckerberg started the company in 2004, when he was a Harvard sophomore, with this mission statement: “Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges.” The record of an online chat is a good reminder that he was, at the time, a teen-ager:
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what?! how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks
Zuckerberg dropped out of college, moved to California, and raised a great deal of venture capital. The network got better, and bigger. Zuckerberg would end meetings by pumping his fist and shouting, “Domination!” New features were rolled out as fast as possible, for the sake of fuelling growth. “Fuck it, ship it” became a company catchphrase. Facebook announced a new mission in 2006, the year it introduced the News Feed: “Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” Growth in the number of users mattered, but so did another measurement: the amount of time a user spent on the site. The point of the News Feed was to drive that second metric.
“Facebook was the world’s biggest testing lab, with a quarter of the planet’s population as its test subjects,” Frenkel and Kang write. Zuckerberg was particularly obsessed with regular surveys that asked users whether Facebook is “good for the world” (a tally abbreviated as GFW). When Facebook implemented such changes as demoting lies in the News Feed, the GFW went up, but the time users spent on Facebook went down. Zuckerberg decided to reverse the changes.
Meanwhile, he talked, more and more, about his sense of mission, each new user another saved soul. He toured the world promoting the idea. “For almost ten years, Facebook has been on a mission to make the world more open and connected,” Zuckerberg wrote in 2013, in a Facebook post called “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” It reads something like a papal encyclical. Zuckerberg was abroad when Sandberg, newly appointed Facebook’s chief operating officer—a protégée of Lawrence Summers’s and a former Google vice-president—established an ambitious growth model. But, Frenkel and Kang argue, “as Facebook entered new nations, no one was charged with monitoring the rollouts with an eye toward the complex political and cultural dynamics within those countries. No one was considering how the platform might be abused in a nation like Myanmar, or asking if they had enough content moderators to review the hundreds of new languages in which Facebook users across the planet would be posting.” Facebook, inadvertently, inflamed the conflict; its algorithms reward emotion, the more heated the better. Eventually, the United Nations concluded that social media played a “determining role” in the genocide and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar—with some twenty-four thousand Rohingya being killed, and seven hundred thousand becoming refugees. “We need to do more,” Zuckerberg and Sandberg would say, again, and again, and again. “We need to do better.”
In 2015, by which time anyone paying attention could see that the News Feed was wreaking havoc on journalism, especially local news reporting, a new hire named Andrew Anker proposed adding a paywall option to a feature called “Instant Articles.” “That meant that in order to keep viewing stories on a publication, readers would have to be subscribers,” Levy writes. “Publishers had been begging for something like that to monetize their stories on Facebook.” But, Levy reports, when Anker pitched the idea to Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. cut him off. “Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t understand how subscription would make the world either more open or connected.”
By the next year, more than half of all Americans were getting their news from social media. During the 2016 Presidential election, many were wildly misinformed. Russian hackers set up hundreds of fake Facebook accounts. They bought political ads. “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s not what we stand for.” But, as Frenkel and Kang observe, “Trump and the Russian hackers had separately come to the same conclusion: they could exploit Facebook’s algorithms to work in their favor.” It didn’t matter if a user, or a post, or an article approved or disapproved of something Trump said or did; reacting to it, in any way, elevated its ranking, and the more intense the reaction, the higher the ranking. Trump became inescapable. The News Feed became a Trump Feed.
In 2017, Zuckerberg went on a listening tour of the United States. “My work is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice,” he announced, messianically. “I want to personally hear more of those voices this year.” He gave motivational speeches. “We have to build a world where every single person has a sense of purpose and community—that’s how we’ll bring the world closer together,” he told a crowd of Facebook-group administrators. “I know we can do this!” And he came up with a new mission statement.
“An Ugly Truth” is a work of muckraking, a form of investigative journalism perfected by Ida Tarbell in a series of essays published in McClure’s between 1902 and 1904 about John D. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil. When Samuel McClure decided to assign a big piece on monopolies, Tarbell suggested the sugar trust, but, as Steve Weinberg reported in his 2008 book, “Taking on the Trust,” McClure wanted her to write about Standard Oil. That was partly because it was such a good story, and partly because of Tarbell’s family history: she’d grown up near an oil field, and Rockefeller had more or less put her father out of business.
Standard Oil, founded in 1870, had, like Facebook, faced scrutiny of its business practices from the start. In 1872 and 1876, it had been the subject of congressional hearings; in 1879, Rockefeller was called to hearings before committees in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio; Standard Oil executives were repeatedly summoned by the Interstate Commerce Commission after its establishment, in 1887; the company was investigated by Congress again in 1888, and by Ohio for more than a decade, and was the subject of a vast number of private suits. Earlier reporters had tried to get the goods, too. In 1881, the Chicago Tribune reporter Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote an article for The Atlantic called “The Story of a Great Monopoly.” Lloyd accused the oil trust of bribing politicians, having, for instance, “done everything with the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.” He concluded: “America has the proud satisfaction of having furnished the world with the greatest, wisest and meanest monopoly known to history.”
Lloyd wrote something between an essay and a polemic. Tarbell took a different tack, drawing on research skills she’d acquired as a biographer of Lincoln. “Neither Standard Oil and Rockefeller nor any powerful American institution had ever encountered a journalist like Tarbell,” Weinberg writes. She also, in something of a first, revealed her sources to readers, explaining that she had gone to state and federal legislatures and courthouses and got the records of all those lawsuits and investigations and even all those private lawsuits, “the testimony of which,” she wrote, “is still in manuscript in the files of the courts where the suits were tried.” She dug up old newspaper stories (quite difficult to obtain in those days) and wrote to Standard Oil’s competitors, asking them to send any correspondence that might cast light on Rockefeller’s anti-competitive practices. She tried, too, to talk to executives at Standard Oil, but, she wrote, “I had been met with that formulated chatter used by those who have accepted a creed.” Finally, she found a source inside the company, Henry Rogers, who had known of her father. As Stephanie Gorton writes in her recent book, “Citizen Reporters,” Tarbell “went to the Standard Oil offices at 26 Broadway regularly for two years. Each time, she entered the imposing colonnaded building and was immediately whisked by an assistant from the lobby via a circuitous and private route to Rogers’s office, kept out of sight from Standard Oil employees who might recognize her, and spoken to by no one but Rogers and his secretary.” Because McClure’s published the work serially, the evidence kept coming; even as Tarbell was writing, disgruntled competitors and employees went on sending her letters and memos. As the Boston Globe put it, she was “writing unfinished history.”
On the subject of John D. Rockefeller, Tarbell proved scathing. “ ‘The most important man in the world,’ a great and serious newspaper passionately devoted to democracy calls him, and unquestionably this is the popular measure of him,” she wrote. “His importance lies not so much in the fact that he is the richest individual in the world. . . . It lies in the fact that his wealth, and the power springing from it, appeal to the most universal and powerful passion in this country—the passion for money.” In sum, “our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner for the kind of influence he exercises.”
On reading the series, Lloyd wrote to her, “When you get through with ‘Johnnie,’ I don’t think there will be very much left of him except something resembling one of his own grease spots.” Critics accused Tarbell of being mean-spirited. A review in The Nation claimed, “To stir up envy, to arouse prejudice, to inflame passion, to appeal to ignorance, to magnify evils, to charge corruption—these seem to be the methods in favor with too many writers who profess a desire to reform society.” In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraking” as a slur. “There is in America today a distinct prejudice in favor of those who make the accusations,” Walter Lippmann observed, of Tarbell’s form of journalism, admitting that “if business and politics really served American need, you could never induce people to believe so many accusations against them.” Few could dispute Tarbell’s evidence, especially after she published the series of articles as a book of four hundred and six pages, with thirty-six appendices stretching across a hundred and forty pages.
Tarbell hadn’t enjoyed taking down Standard Oil. “It was just one of those things that had to be done,” she wrote. “I trust that it has not been useless.” It had not been useless. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil.
The year McClure’s published the final installment of Tarbell’s series, Rockefeller’s son, John, Jr., on the threshold of inheriting one of the world’s greatest fortunes, suffered a nervous breakdown. Shortly before the breakup of his father’s company, Rockefeller, Jr., a devout and earnest Christian, stepped away from any role in Standard Oil or its successor firms; he turned his attention to philanthropy, guided, in part, by Ivy Lee, his father’s public-relations manager. In 1920, at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, before an audience of twelve hundred clergymen, he announced that he had found a new calling, as a booster and chief underwriter of a utopian, ecumenical Protestant organization called the Interchurch World Movement. “When a vast multitude of people come together earnestly and prayerfully,” he told the crowd, “there must be developed an outpouring of spiritual power such as this land has never before known.” In a letter to his father, asking him for tens of millions of dollars to give to the cause, the younger Rockefeller wrote, “I do not think we can overestimate the importance of this Movement. As I see it, it is capable of having a much more far-reaching influence than the League of Nations in bringing about peace, contentment, goodwill, and prosperity among the people of the earth.” The Interchurch World Movement, in short, aimed to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. It failed. Rockefeller repurposed its funds for Christian missions.
“Our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” is a statement to be found in Facebook’s Terms of Service; everyone who uses Facebook implicitly consents to this mission. During the years of the company’s ascent, the world has witnessed a loneliness epidemic, the growth of political extremism and political violence, widening political polarization, the rise of authoritarianism, the decline of democracy, a catastrophic crisis in journalism, and an unprecedented rise in propaganda, fake news, and misinformation. By no means is Facebook responsible for these calamities, but evidence implicates the company as a contributor to each of them. In July, President Biden said that misinformation about covid-19 on Facebook “is killing people.”
Collecting data and selling ads does not build community, and it turns out that bringing people closer together, at least in the way Facebook does it, makes it easier for them to hurt one another. Facebook wouldn’t be so successful if people didn’t love using it, sharing family photographs, joining groups, reading curated news, and even running small businesses. But studies have consistently shown that the more time people spend on Facebook the worse their mental health becomes; Facebooking is also correlated with increased sedentariness, a diminishment of meaningful face-to-face relationships, and a decline in real-world social activities. Efforts to call Zuckerberg and Sandberg to account and get the company to stop doing harm have nearly all ended in failure. Employees and executives have tried in vain to change the company’s policies and, especially, its algorithms. Congress has held hearings. Trustbusters have tried to break the company up. Regulators have attempted to impose rules on it. And journalists have written exposés. But, given how profoundly Facebook itself has undermined journalism, it’s hard to see how Frenkel and Kang’s work, or anyone else’s, could have a Tarbell-size effect.
“If what you care about is democracy and elections,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2019, “then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars a year, like we are, in building really advanced tools to fight election interference.” During the next year’s Presidential election, Frenkel and Kang report, “Trump was the single-largest spender on political ads on Facebook.” His Facebook page was busier than those of the major networks, BuzzFeed, the Washington Post, and the New York Times taken together. Over the protests of many Facebook employees, Zuckerberg had adopted, and stuck to, a policy of not subjecting any political advertisements to fact-checking. Refusing to be “an arbiter of truth,” Facebook instead established itself as a disseminator of misinformation.
On January 27, 2021, three weeks after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Zuckerberg, having suspended Trump’s account, renewed Facebook’s commitments: “We’re going to continue to focus on helping millions more people participate in healthy communities, and we’re going to focus even more on being a force for bringing people closer together.” Neither a record-setting five-billion-dollar penalty for privacy violations nor the latest antitrust efforts have managed to check one of the world’s most dangerous monopolies. Billions of people remain, instead, in the tightfisted, mechanical grip of its soul-saving mission.