Huge new report on Facebook paints a picture of disarray and dissent
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had quite a stressful year.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had quite a stressful year.

Image: NurPhoto / Contributor

By Stan Schroeder

Facebook is in trouble. But it’s not a singular problem or even a set of problems the social networking giant has recently faced — it’s been an overwhelming mountain of issues, some of them slowly burning for years, seemingly ready to join forces into one cataclysmic dumpster fire. 

This is the picture of Facebook painted by a new, 12,000 word report by Wired, published Tuesday. The report’s authors, Wired’s editor in chief Nicholas Thompson and editor at large Fred Vogelstein, spoke to “65 current and former employees” to create a scathing deep dive into everything that was wrong on Facebook in the past 15 months, and the company’s apparent inability to properly fix most of it. 

SEE ALSO: Facebook faces criminal investigation over controversial data sharing deals

The report did not uncover any major new scandal. We’ve heard about these stories over the past years — the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the squabbles with Instagram founders, the ill-conceived Facebook Research project in which the company paid teens to install an app that granted Facebook detailed insight into their phone and internet usage. 

In short, the fact that not everything’s hunky dory at Facebook has been publicly known for some time (even though the company appears to be healthy financially, and user-base-wise). 

But a troubling undercurrent in Wired’s extremely detailed report — read the whole thing if you can find the time, it’s well worth it — is one of discord and dissent within the company.  For every bad decision Facebook made, like the one to front-run the news reports about the Cambridge Analytica scandal with their own story, the report lists (mostly unnamed) officials who were either out of the loop or deeply dissatisfied with the way things have been handled. 

One example: After COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to stay largely silent in the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica story, some PR people at Facebook were dumbfounded. “We had hundreds of reporters flooding our inboxes, and we had nothing to tell them,” a member of the communications staff at the time told Wired.

In the case of Instagram, and WhatsApp, both social services which Facebook had acquired for outrageous sums, the aftermath was worse: WhatsApp co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum, as well as Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company on uneasy (if not downright hostile) terms. The report sheds additional light to the way they were treated within Facebook’s complicated system of hierarchies, and highlights just how hard it is for outsiders to fit in. In one example, the report claims that “WhatsApp employees had special bathroom stalls designed with doors that went down to the floor, unlike the standard ones used by the rest of Facebook.”

Another important theme in the report is that Facebook’s inability to deal with its issues may be stemming from the very concepts that propelled Facebook’s immense growth. Facebook is an important source of news, but when fake news had become a real problem, the company found that getting rid of it is much tougher than it seemed. When Facebook adjusted its algorithms to show users more posts created by their friends and family, news outlets suffered, and backlash ensued. When Facebook executive Alex Stamos tried to counter The Guardian’s Cambridge Analytica report on Twitter, no one trusted him — partly, the report claims, because Facebook’s “algorithms helped sustain a news ecosystem that prioritizes outrage.”

It’s not all bad. Some of Facebook’s important efforts over the past couple of years — to integrate WhatsApp and Instagram with the main app more closely, combat fake news and make News Feed more about friends and family — worked quite well, the report asserts. Profits are up again, and the company’s stock price has been recovering quite well since December 2018. 

But important questions about the future of Facebook remain. “The idea of Facebook is to bring people together, but the business model only works by slicing and dicing users into small groups for the sake of ad targeting. Is it possible to have those two things work simultaneously?” the authors of the report ask. 

Mashable has reached out to Facebook for comment on the report and will update the article when we hear from them. 

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