How well do you know Facebook? Unless you’re a tech fan you might vaguely know that it’s run by a fish-faced computer nerd called Mark Zuckerberg and his smooth-talking deputy Sheryl Sandberg, who once wrote a book about female empowerment called Lean In. You might also know that Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, and as a result of highly sophisticated user tracking across the three wildly popular platforms, it sure knows a hell of a lot about you.
All of which makes Facebook arguably the most potent tool of communication, and thus of power itself, the world has ever known. It is a company to which almost half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, have signed up, and is now worth more than a trillion dollars.
Yet it is also a company which, from election meddling to genocide abetting, has been inadvertently involved in a series of extraordinary scandals, any one of which might have fatally sunk another company. Not Facebook. And in part, say the authors of a new book that exposes the inner workings of the tech behemoth, that is because we the people know so little about how it is run, and the people who run it.
“We wanted to find out who Mark and Sheryl are,” says Sheera Frenkel, co-author with Cecilia Kang of An Ugly Truth. “You could argue they have more power than any sitting president, and we don’t really know who they are.”
“Facebook is so well known, so ubiquitous, [yet] still very enigmatic,” adds Kang. “People don’t really know what’s under the hood.”
Clearly, much of Facebook’s extraordinary success has been built on the Zuckerberg-Sandberg relationship. “We thought about it a lot as a marriage,” says Frenkel. “They both have something the other wants or needs.” The pair met in 2007, three years after Zuckerberg, then 19, had founded Facebook while at Harvard, and a year after he had turned down a billion dollar takeover offer from Yahoo. Sandberg, 14 years his senior, was the “master manager”, early to bed, early to rise. Zuckerberg was the coding machine, a “night crawler”. As the social network started growing at a phenomenal rate, their personalities complemented each other perfectly: he looked after the product; she the business, notably advertising.
Like any marriage, the authors say, there was a “honeymoon phase”, a period of phenomenal and largely uncontroversial growth that characterised their first years together. Yet afterwards came the “downs” to go with the ups – scandal, public outrage and regulatory attack. In those moments it became clear that, though publicly they were “in lockstep”, privately it was increasingly Zuckerberg, the founder with his controlling shares, who dictated policy.
“Mark has taken over quite a few aspects of the company that Sheryl used to manage on her own,” says Frenkel. Today, “Facebook employees say ‘we’re not really sure what her new mandate is’.” Even so the top two meet twice weekly and remain “closest friends, even though their business relationship has frayed”.
To outsiders it may seem that Zuckerberg hired then acquired Sandberg’s skills, leaving her out of favour. Such a cut-throat approach may seem incompatible with his demure private boarding school upbringing in an upper middle class family in upstate New York. But as Frenkel and Kang quote one member of his closest business circle (known as the M-Team): “You won’t find anyone more ruthless in business than Mark.”
The authors describe his transition from naive keyboard warrior to battle-hardened entrepreneur who idolises Caesar Augustus and for whom scandal is the price of greatness. “He doesn’t seem flustered by it because he sees himself as someone who in 100 years time will be a chapter in a history book. That’s what matters to him.”
At the court of Emperor Mark, loyalty above all is prized. One top employee describes it in the book as the “cult that is Mark’s inner circle… There was no one saying ‘Wait’.”
“Everybody wants to get closer to Mark, everyone wants to get closer to Sheryl, they want to be in that inner circle,” says Kang. “Getting in is a huge deal and means you don’t agitate.” Kang even likens one Facebook employee concerned by the site’s now notorious attitude of “move fast and break things”, to a “conscientious objector”. That was Alex Stamos, its one time chief security officer, who flagged serious problems, notably Russian meddling, but was “seen as a nuisance”. Eventually he left the company. Indeed, says Frenkel, the same happened to “every major force that rose up and openly disagreed with Mark and Sheryl.”
Such was the fate of the founders of the apps whose acquisition expanded and secured Facebook’s dominance, WhatsApp and Instagram, who soon found themselves at odds with Zuckerberg and Sandberg. “Booted out,” says Frenkel.
Is Sandberg being used in this way? “She acknowledges that herself,” says Frenkel. “She serves Mark at his will, and Mark is known as being a fairly ruthless businessman. He either acquires or kills any competition.”
There was a time when she might have jumped ship, back in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was expected to win the election, and Sandberg was tipped for a cabinet posting. It would have been a graceful exit. But Clinton didn’t win the election and under President Trump, Facebook came under the spotlight as never before, becoming to many a toxic brand. Asked if Sandberg might be up for a job now, a Biden official told the authors: “No f—— way.”
Yet for all the close-knit nature of the M-team, the occasional outsider makes it in. One is Nick Clegg, whom the authors describe as the company’s “chief diplomat”. It was Clegg, they write, who advised Zuckerberg and Sandberg that political regulation was inevitable and suggested the company needed to get out in front of the issue “to create light touch rules”.
“He was hired to do a very specific job at this time,” says Kang. But he has certainly not, says Frenkel, become Zuckerberg’s bestie: “He’s not the one going out to Tahoe with [Zuckerberg] on his electric wakeboard…”
Yet even Zuckerberg, no matter how ruthless and single-minded, was not ready for Trump, who “challenged every single line Facebook had drawn in the sand”. Time and again, the former President embodied and exploited contradictions to his own benefit. When the pandemic erupted, for example, Facebook drew up rules against potentially harmful medical misinformation. But then Trump, whose declarations as a political leader were protected on the site, announced that disinfectants were possible treatments for Covid. As his dangerous nonsense whizzed round Facebook, executives at the company found themselves, according to one: “stuck in an impossible position”.
What Trump so decisively revealed, however, was not specific to him. He merely focused attention on the single critical choice that Zuckerberg had to make in running the world’s biggest social network: whether to prioritise accuracy or user engagement and Facebook’s growth (always dressed up as “free expression”). He even agreed when top Facebook comms executive Rachel Whetstone – former friend and colleague of David Cameron – suggested he defend the vilest posts he could think of. So it was that Jewish Zuckerberg found himself insisting that Facebook should allow Holocaust denialism to spread unchecked. “I don’t believe our platform should take that down,” he said in 2018. Facebook was about “giving people the tools to share their experience and connect”.
The trouble was that genocidal generals in Myanmar wanted to share and connect anti-Muslim propaganda that helped whip up mass murder; Trump backers shared blatantly doctored videos of senior Democrats, or fallacious posts claiming that “liberal elites” like George Soros and Bill Gates were behind a child abuse conspiracy. As senior executive Andrew Bosworth wrote in 2016: “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack co-ordinated on our tools… The ugly truth is that… anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”
Clegg even found himself happily confirming that Facebook would accept payment for, but not fact check, all the political ads it ran and disseminated with unmatched precision.
Only slowly, the book suggests, did it become clear that such a position was unsustainable. And then change was made only grudgingly. QAnon and Holocaust denial were banned only last October.
So is Zuckerberg a bad man? Evil genius or naive emperor? “It’s a little bit of both,” says Frenkel. “In nearly every chapter, Zuckerberg and Sandberg are given a warning, they’re told something bad might happen and they either ignore that or downplay it.” Says Kang: “There’s also a clear pattern of big mistake, apology, promises to do better. Wash, rinse and repeat.”
Not that the company, which remains the biggest lobbying force in the US, seems likely to be forced to change. Its biggest existential threat, a lawsuit to break it up, has recently been thrown out of court.
Shareholders, meanwhile, are hardly complaining. Why would they be, given Facebook’s astonishing engagement. We users just can’t stay away, entranced by the company’s “secret sauce”, its algorithm that pushes items to our news feeds. And there lies a second ugly truth: that human nature is drawn not to calm consensus, but to tribalism and extremes. “That’s what will keep you scrolling and that will keep you using the platform,” says Frenkel.
So should we delete Facebook? The authors, both users themselves, say no. The three apps are so entwined in our lives. “I don’t think it’s realistic,” says Frenkel. And therein lies the rub.
*Exclusive extract tomorrow: How Facebook engineers accessed users’ private information
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang (The Bridge Street Press). RRP £20. Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514