More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay

The Press and the President

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing of journalists this past week exclaimed in exasperation:

“You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when ninety percent of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected.”

It would be difficult to disagree with her observation that media coverage of the president is 90% unfavorable.

Why is the press overwhelmingly negative toward this president?

1) He lies obviously, shamelessly, and constantly.

2) His ideas and policies are uninformed, constructed from whim, and largely empirically wrong.

3) His behavior is morally repugnant and his driving force is feeding his ego.

4) The circumstances of his election are being investigated for criminal intervention by credible authorities.

The press is doing its job. The press is reporting on the dangers it sees threatening our nation. Were the weighting of critique not so uniformly negative, we might wonder if there was some hidden agenda in an institutional bias, some collusion with ulterior motives. The only collective agenda I can glean is the reporting of information allowing us to make critical decisions about our freedom and well-being.

Fake news is not the work product of trained journalists under credentialed editorial supervision. Journalism and a free press are the backbone that anchors the ongoing experiment that is our democracy.

Fake news is the drivel that emerges from undisciplined commentary and targeted propaganda. Misdirection is a tactic of human divisiveness, subversion of logical process, and chaos that beckons autocratic control.

Journalism and misdirection are not the same, unless one purposefully hijacks the other. When a true journalist makes a mistake or misstates a fact, the press runs a retraction. When an ignorant or hateful opinion-maker deliberately attempts to mask a lie as the truth, the lie is left to stand because it was intended to spread falsehood.

To confuse journalism with fake news is to misunderstand the fundamental pillar protecting democracy from authoritarian rule.

The press is not the enemy of the people.

Our president is not a victim. His relationship with the media is his own making.

Make change happen. Change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. We are in severe pain.

Read your ballots carefully. Studied reporters have filled our news sources with more analysis than at any other time in history. We always have a choice.

Get out the vote.

Dan Rather Live

Last week I attended a talk with Dan Rather, who is on the road in support of his latest book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Produced by Live Talks Los Angeles, it was an especially engaging conversation because he was interviewed by someone equally interesting and unique, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem made it clear this was an unusual gig for him because he is usually the one answering rather than asking interview questions. He opened with the observation that what he and Rather have in common is that today each of them is considered an elder statesman. Without missing the lightness of the moment, Rather jumped into the dialogue and made it clear that he does not think of himself in any way as a statesman. He also declared with humility that he is not a philosopher or a political scientist, just a very lucky reporter grateful to have enjoyed a long career in professional journalism.

I have to admit that I am quite the fan of Dan Rather. I was in college when he was passed the torch from Walter Cronkite. In those days anchoring the day’s national  news wrap-up was both a high honor and enormous responsibility. I was raised on the CBS Evening News and to this day it remains a welcome friend in my home, played back late at night from a digital recording. The anchor chair has changed hands several times over the years, but when Rather sat there, he carried the weight of the world’s biggest stories with dignity, authenticity, precision, and charm.

I found Rather’s comments that evening so insightful and energizing, I wanted to share a few of his thoughts in hopes that those who share my regard for his career know that his voice is still resonating, and those who are unfamiliar with him might choose to discover the depth of his observations.

“News is what powerful people don’t want you to know,” he offered with certainty. He defined the job of journalism as getting the story that others may be hiding, and that is why journalists are often unpopular with people in high places. This has always been the job as he sees it, finding out what the public needs to know no matter who doesn’t want the public to know it. Mistakes will be made along the way, and he as much as anyone knows there is a severe price to reporting news imperfectly let alone incorrectly, but if a reporter on the beat does not understand that uncovering the hidden story through research is what matters, then that journalist is not much of a journalist.

To that end and in answer to several questions about our current President, Rather observed that Donald Trump is a fearful man. The awkward speech patterns and erratic management behavior of Trump suggest a man who is “very afraid of something.” As a journalist, Rather sees in Trump’s tone glaring similarities to other political leaders who have attempted to cover their tracks, and in so doing he believes this fear will only become heightened as the investigations around him intensify.

In response to broad attempts to discredit the media with sweeping labels of “fake news,” Rather acknowledged that the news landscape today is cluttered with an enormous number of competitive brands, but that to lump them together as equal in diligence or relevance makes little sense. He reminded us that without journalism a democracy will perish, and that widely dismissing media with the catch-all critique of irresponsibility was the most dangerous conclusion we could reach. We have choices in media, and we need to make those as individuals in evaluating standards of discipline. This is a significantly more cluttered playing field than it was in the days of the “Big Three” television networks, but the rules of fact-supported journalism haven’t changed and the idea of uniformly devaluing reporters is a tactic of tyranny.

Rather spent a lot of time talking about the frightening path of authoritarianism fueling the emotion of extreme nationalism, with that being a step toward self-asserted nativism and ultimately devolving into tribalism. He believes in patriotism and has served as a U.S. Marine (an admittedly short tenure), but he is deeply concerned that if we let rhetoric drive our culture to tribal conflict, our nation’s model experiment in democracy will be no more.

In that same concern of internal conflict, he worries that our nation has yet to come to terms with sufficient advances in race relations. He sees the ongoing suppression of minority voting as pernicious and systemically in need of our attention. This struggle dates back to our founding and seems likely to remain unresolved until the final page of our history is written.

Rather worries that our population doesn’t understand how close we are to the brink of war with North Korea, a human tragedy we will regret if we don’t navigate it properly. He sees China as the key to containing North Korea, because China largely controls the supply lines there. The emphasis of our negotiations is better served with China so that China has enhanced motivation to ease tensions with North Korea. We shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise.

With regard to national priorities, Rather believes that “the three foremost issues in our agenda need to be education, education, and education.” There is no doubt in his mind that education is the core of an informed constituency, and without it democracy will collapse. Likewise he reminded us that “dissent is American” and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the foundations of our nation. Our nation was founded on dissent, and it is always our right to dissent. He chooses to stand for our national anthem, but he appreciates that other forms of peaceful expression remain valid and core to our principles of free speech.

In closing, Rather spoke eloquently of avoiding the trap of cynicism. He believes in skepticism, both as a reporter and consumer of news, but he emphasized that no good can come of cynicism. There is no value in the snide dismissal of hope. I was particularly heartened to hear him end by encouraging us to hold onto our idealism. To hear a career journalist who has stood in the trenches of war and seen close-up every form of violence our world has suffered end on a note of idealism reminded me why I loved his newscast. This was a journalist who at the height of his fame signed off at night with a single word: “Courage.”

Dan Rather is a reporter still on the job, a journalist forever unafraid to do the job that has been his life’s work. Courage and idealism have never mattered more in our world. He might not want to be called an elder statesman, but I know one when I see one.