Facebook’s instinct to deny, then apologize is baked into its DNA

A new feature from The New York Times takes an in-depth look at Facebook’s response—or rather, lack of response—to criticism about Russian trolls using its platform to spread disinformation both before and during the 2016 election. The piece points fingers at a number of senior staff, including the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, as well as VP of public policy Joel Kaplan, who allegedly advised Sandberg to downplay the potential threat from Russian agents because he was afraid of angering conservatives (something that has become a common theme ever since the Trending Topics fiasco of 2016).

The one person who is arguably the most to blame in this whole affair barely even appears in the Times feature: Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Does his apparent absence from the decision-making process stem from a lack of interest, or a desire to let Sandberg and other underlings handle the sticky subjects he isn’t comfortable with, like politics and emotion? Perhaps. But it’s more than that. The approach the Times describes—to deny any wrongdoing, then apologize, and finally to delay attempts to fix it—is baked into the company’s DNA at a cellular level. It couldn’t behave any differently if it tried.

To understand why, it’s helpful to go back to the early days, when Facebook first launched the feature it is probably best known for: the News Feed. It might seem hard to believe, but the social network didn’t always have that stream of friends’ photos and news stories and hilarious cat videos. And when it introduced the News Feed, in 2006, there was a massive backlash from users, who almost uniformly hated it. But it wasn’t just because the feed was seen as ugly, or irritating. Many users also saw it as a fundamental breach of privacy that their likes and other activity were being shared with other users. One called it “creepy and stalker-esque.” Facebook groups dedicated to hating the new feature were created. Petitions were drafted. Users threatened to quit.

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And what was Mark Zuckerberg’s response? In one of the most tone-deaf CEO messages in history, he patronizingly advised users to stop over-reacting. “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” he wrote, arguing that there was no reason to get upset. He later followed up with a more humble explanation (presumably after the PR department or senior advisors got to him), in which he apologized for upsetting everyone, but assured them that all was well, and that Facebook would try hard to keep their trust.

So what happened after that? That feature, and the advertising business built on top of it, are now worth an estimated $400 billion dollars. And what kind of message has that sent, not just to Mark Zuckerberg but to everyone working at Facebook? That no matter what happens, no matter how negative the reaction is to the changes you have made, no matter how apocalyptic it seems, the correct response is to deny, then apologize, and then move on and wait for everyone to get over it. And that playbook has been repeated ad nauseam ever since.

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The only thing that has arguably changed is that the stakes are a lot higher, the mistakes a lot larger, and the apologies a lot more fulsome. Instead of a tiny social network with just 10 million users, Facebook reaches more than two billion people. And instead of irritating some users, it allowed its platform to be used by agents of a foreign government in an attempt to affect an election. And instead of a blog post, Zuckerberg wound up testifying before Congress.

The playbook, however, has remained the same: 1) It didn’t happen, and/or it wasn’t that big a deal. 2) If it did happen, we apologize unreservedly, and we will try hard to make sure it won’t happen again. 3) It happened again? That’s because we are still working on it, but rest assured we care deeply. 4) Rinse and repeat. Like a Labrador retriever with an inattentive owner, Facebook has been trained over time to do one thing and one thing only: ignore criticism and plow on regardless. That’s how it built a $400-billion-dollar business, so it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.