Going under the hood of the world’s most voracious data-mining machine (review of An Ugly Truth)

What’s the price to be paid when you put company before country and profits over privacy?

For Facebook, it adds up to record results.

The company’s second quarter ad revenue jumped 56 per cent to $29.1 billion compared to the same quarter last year, with profits more than doubling to $10.4 billion. Facebook also reported 2.9 billion monthly active users.

But beyond the balance sheet, it’s been a brutal stretch for Facebook and all the rest of us who have to live in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s world. Some of the company’s lowest hits include the Cambridge Analytica data breach and Russian disinformation campaigns against Western democracies to the genocide in Myanmar and Zuckerberg giving Holocaust deniers a pass by saying “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

“Throughout Facebook’s 17-year history, the social network’s massive gains have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and the integrity of democratic systems,” write New York Times journalists Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel in their book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. “And yet, that’s never gotten in the way of its success.”

Kang and Frenkel spent more than 1,000 hours interviewing over 400 people, including former and current employees, executives, investors and advisors. They also drew from a trove of never-reported internal emails, memos and white papers. Zuckerberg refused repeated requests for interviews, while Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg walked back her promise of off-the-record conversations.

“The people who spoke to us, often putting their careers at risk, were crucial to our ability to write this book. Without their voices, the story of the most consequential social experiment of our times could not have been told in full. These people provide a rare look inside a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, but whose corporate culture demands secrecy and unqualified loyalty.”

Kang and Frenkel look at the origins and consequences of Facebook’s growth-at-any-cost business strategy, which includes buying or burying competitors that stifles innovation and leaves us with fewer choices. “Many people regard Facebook as a company that lost its way: the classic Frankenstein story of a monster that broke free of its creator. We take a different point of view. From the moment Zuckerberg and Sandberg met at a Christmas party in December 2007, they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth and entirely deliberate in its design.”

It’s a business model that makes Facebook’s 2.9 billion users the product that’s packaged and sold to advertisers for billions in ad revenue. The authors call Facebook the world’s most voracious data-mining machine. The more time users spend on the platform, the more money Facebook makes from advertisers. And nothing hooks users and keeps them coming back day after day quite like tribal fear and hatred fueled by a constant feed of misinformation and disinformation on everything from election results to COVID-19 vaccinations.

While Facebook and its legion of lawyers and lobbyists will tell us that big tech regulation is unnecessary and breaking up the company would be disastrous, Kang and Frenkel say it’s likely the only way to force Facebook to change for the common good. Last December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and nearly every state sued Facebook for harming its users and competitors.

“The algorithm that serves Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, gets none of his news from Facebook and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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