In This Review

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination
By Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang
Harper, 2021, 352 pp.

With an impeccably sourced, highly readable volume based on interviews with hundreds of current and former Facebook employees, investors, and advisers, as well as more than 100 lawmakers, regulators, academics, and consumer advocates, and on access to previously undisclosed documents from inside the company, two New York Times reporters have produced an important addition to the voluminous literature on Facebook that should be read widely by policymakers and the public alike. The title comes from a 2016 memo to Facebook employees in which an executive in the CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle explains: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.” If someone uses the platform for evil, the memo says, that’s unfortunate, but “still, we connect people.” What this has meant in practice is that Facebook has prioritized revenue growth above all else. The company’s conversion of users into unwitting sales agents by tracking their shopping activity off the site, Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election partly through use of the site, Facebook’s development of algorithms that privilege fake news and result in news feeds that lead users down rabbit holes of misinformation—these scandals and more follow an infuriating pattern. First come efforts to suppress the bad news internally. When that fails, Facebook offers a weak public apology, which is followed by an ineffectual response from Congress or the Federal Trade Commission and then a rise in the stock price. Even a record $5 billion fine went unnoticed by the market. Facebook’s sheer size, its huge cash reserves, its aggressive legal, public relations, and lobbying teams, and regulators’ lack of understanding of what happens “behind the platform” have so far prevented effective action to rein in the company’s damaging impacts on personal privacy and the integrity of democratic societies. The authors aren’t hopeful this will come soon, but this book could help.