Wired today published a monster of an investigation into Facebook by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein, and hoo boy is it something. The entire piece details the company’s desperate struggle to come to grips with its own power and the proliferation of fake news/propaganda that it enabled, and is filled with stunning/breathtaking anecdotes about the social media company’s tumultuous last two years. As the tagline of the piece puts it, the investigation digs into how “a confused, defensive social media giant steered itself into a disaster, and how Mark Zuckerberg is trying to fix it all.” (Spoiler alert: Zuckerberg has struggled mightily to fix things. As one Facebook employee told Wired, “watching Zuckerberg, he was reminded of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the farm-worker with no understanding of his own strength.”)
With all of that said, the main takeaway from the piece — or perhaps the most important — is this: Facebook either got played by, or bullied by (depending on your perspective) conservative activists into doing little to nothing to do anything to fix the egregious exploitation of the platform that was taking place during the 2016 election season. It all started in May of 2016 when Gizmodo published a story in which contract employees who worked on Facebook’s news feed told the website that they regularly suppressed news from conservative media outlets. This led to a (predictable) conservative backlash. Spooked, Mark Zuckerberg invited a group of prominent conservatives to the company’s headquarters for a meeting to essentially kiss their ass and apologize.
Facebook decided, too, that it had to extend an olive branch to the entire American right wing, much of which was raging about the company’s supposed perfidy. And so, just over a week after the story ran, Facebook scrambled to invite a group of 17 prominent Republicans out to Menlo Park. The list included television hosts, radio stars, think tankers, and an adviser to the Trump campaign. The point was partly to get feedback. But more than that, the company wanted to make a show of apologizing for its sins, lifting up the back of its shirt, and asking for the lash.