The Media Today

Times scoop casts doubt on Facebook’s remaining credibility

November 15, 2018

Hiring a Republican opposition-research firm to cast liberal critics as tools of George Soros. Lobbying the Anti-Defamation League to call other criticism anti-Semitic. Ordering top management to use only Android phones following public criticism from the chief executive of Apple.

These were among the extraordinary details about Facebook’s inner workings that The New York Times laid bare yesterday. In a five-byline scoop, Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas unspool the disputes and dysfunction that have gripped the tech giant through cascading scandals and intensifying PR disasters in recent years. Frenkel tweeted yesterday that the piece took six months to complete. “Facebook is notoriously difficult to report on,” she said. “The company offers highly curated, and controlled, access to journalists.”

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

Keeping a tight focus on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operating officer, the Times reveals the lengths to which the company has gone to hide its blemishes. “Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view,” it says. “While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation.”

As the piece shows, Facebook conceived of its early problems as chiefly political. It punted when Donald Trump used the platform to spread anti-Muslim invective in 2015, worried that acting against his account would infuriate conservative critics. When staffers uncovered concerted Russian activity on the network around the 2016 presidential election, Sandberg and other executives reacted angrily, then opted to downplay the findings—worried, again, that Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats as the polarizing debate over Russian interference blew up.

Over time, however, criticism of Facebook has become increasingly bipartisan, and its woes more user-facing. Earlier this year, Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress following reports that Cambridge Analytica, a shady electoral research firm with links to Trump’s presidential campaign, harvested masses of user data. In the months since, the company has had to reckon with the revelations, also in the Times, that it passed reams more data to device makers, and hackers stealing many users’ information in the company’s worst ever security breach.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Times piece ties these threads together. Questions around speech on the platform and Russian disinformation were excruciating for Facebook—but their complexity allowed Facebook to claim it was grappling in good faith to rectify them. More recently, that projection has become see-through. The Times has decisively exposed it for what it always was—a cynical front for a company that has been nowhere near willing enough to reform its flawed business model and product.

On Twitter yesterday, even longtime Facebook-watchers expressed shock that the firm paid GOP-linked spinners to cast legitimate criticism as part of a Soros-backed campaign—a move with ugly echoes of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Facebook and other social networks have allowed to fester on their platforms. As its problems have stacked up, Facebook has had more than its fair share of the benefit of the doubt. As one more damning report emerges from behind the scenes, its critics are less likely than ever to be as generous going forward.

ICYMI: Newspaper investigates after veteran reporter accused of making up sources

Below, more on Facebook’s new travails and past efforts to escape scrutiny:

  • A tipping point? Democrats winning the House majority looks set to be another blow for Facebook. Reacting to the Times scoop, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, who is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel from January, tweeted, “This staggering report makes clear that Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers. It is long past time for us to take action.”
  • Trouble at the top? NBC Silicon Valley–watcher Dylan Byers had an interesting reaction to the Times piece. “What’s so damning about this Facebook story isn’t just what [the Times] learned, it’s who they learned it from,” he tweeted. “Many of the most damning details could only have come from high-ranking executives who were in the room at confidential meetings. That suggests real trouble in Menlo.”
  • Trouble below decks: Even before the Times story landed yesterday, The Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman reported that employee morale at Facebook is collapsing, with an internal survey showing 32 percent fewer staffers than a year ago are optimistic about the firm’s future.
  • Disingenuous, I: Last week, Facebook released an independent report admitting that it did not do enough to combat the spread of hate on the platform in Myanmar, but insisting that its efforts were now on the right track. A United Nations report released on the same day, however, accused Facebook of continuing to hide the full extent of the problem, as CJR’s Mathew Ingram pointed out.
  • Disingenuous, II: It’s worth coming back to this story from Mya Frazier, who wrote for CJR in February that Facebook used pseudonyms to cut deals with public entities and insisted on reviewing freedom of information requests pertaining to the company—a bid to evade routine journalistic scrutiny. The practice is reportedly common among tech giants: this week, it emerged that Amazon also won the right to review FOIAs as part of its deal to build a new base in Virginia.

Other notable stories:

  • A bevy of major news organizations—including Fox News—filed amicus briefs on behalf of CNN as the network sues the Trump administration for the reinstatement of Jim Acosta’s press credentials. At an eventful first hearing yesterday, a Justice Department lawyer told Judge Timothy J. Kelly that the White House can legally pull a reporter’s press pass for any reason it chooses (including unfavorable coverage), and a man told Acosta he should be “lawfully hung” as he entered the courtroom. Kelly is expected to rule today on CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order which, if granted, would reinstate Acosta’s pass for now.
  • As the White House doubled down on anti-media maneuvers at home, Vice President Mike Pence lectured Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on her country’s press freedom failures at a summit in Singapore. Pence condemned Myanmar’s jailing of the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in public remarks, then again in a “very candid” private exchange, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports.
  • Leaders of Italy’s anti-establishment governing Five Star Movement called journalists “jackals” and “whores” over their reporting of a corruption case involving the mayor of Rome, who was acquitted this week. Responding to the attacks, journalists’ unions in the country organized flash mobs in major cities, as well as in London and Brussels.
  • For CJR, Larry Light writes that Republicans’ hatred of the news media is a long-term affair, tracing it back to Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 dismantling of Joe McCarthy. “Not much has changed,” Light says. “For many Republicans, the existence of a liberal media bias is an established fact, like the temperature at which water freezes.”
  • Employees at the Capital Gazette newspaper group in Annapolis, Maryland—where a gunman killed five staffers in June—are joining with colleagues at The Baltimore Sun and Carroll County Times to unionize under the banner of the Chesapeake News Guild. “As local news outlets dwindle, we know now more than ever that quality community news is a gift too precious to lose. But that important work grows more difficult each day because of decisions made by distant corporate owners on behalf of shareholders,” organizers wrote. The papers are owned by Tribune Publishing, the distant corporate owners formerly known as tronc.
  • The Financial Times has created a bot that warns editors when they are not quoting enough women, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports.
  • And for CJR’s latest print issue, Errin Haines Whack, National Writer on Race and Ethnicity at the Associated Press, wrote about her life on the race beat. “As race is an omnipresent force in American life, race coverage, which requires the same sort of expertise as business or education journalism, is essential to reporting on who we are as a society,” she says.

ICYMI: CNN drops the gloves, sues Trump over Acosta press pass

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.