Facebook leaks take their toll

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images/BBC

We knew that Facebook's handling of its recent crises had been inept - Mark Zuckerberg's description of the idea that fake news put Donald Trump in the White House as "crazy" was a prime example.

But now the New York Times has painted a startling picture not just of negligence and mismanagement by Facebook's leaders but of deeply questionable tactics as they fought to protect the image of their company.

Mark Zuckerberg, both chairman and chief executive, has what many would consider as an alarming amount of power over a public company.

Yet, according to the newspaper, he was sometimes strangely detached, touring the country to engage with "ordinary people" but not getting involved in some key decisions, such as the publication of a paper about election interference on Facebook that somehow failed to mention Russia.

But it is the chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg who stands accused of launching what the paper calls an "aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook's critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation".

Now, aggressive lobbying is not a crime - but there is one eye-catching aspect of the campaign that paints Ms Sandberg in a very poor light.

A lobbying firm hired by the social media company is alleged to have spread a story that George Soros - a hate figure for conservatives and the subject of anti-Semitic smears - was behind the anti-Facebook movement.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
George Soros' Open Society Foundations has accused Facebook of "reprehensible" behaviour

This revelation was greeted with incredulity and fury by Mr Soros's Open Society Foundations, whose president, Patrick Gaspard, tweeted: "These tactics out of Putin's playbook have no place in an important debate about the integrity of our elections."

In a letter to Sheryl Sandberg, he wrote: "lt's been disappointing to see how you have failed to monitor hate and misinformation on Facebook's platform.

"To now learn that you are active in promoting these distortions is beyond the pale."

What really stands out is the apparent lack of confidence Ms Sandberg and Mr Zuckerberg show in their company's own professed mission "to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us".

Instead, they appear focused on Washington politics and in particular on appeasing Republican critics who suspect them of stifling conservative views.

That will not play well in other parts of the globe where Facebook stands accused of playing a malign role in fracturing communities rather than building them.

Facebook has claimed the New York Times' article contains "a number of inaccuracies" and published a rebuttal.

So, is this a one-day wonder, a brief storm that will have little long-term effect on Facebook's fortunes?

Perhaps not. For one thing, it will further erode morale inside the company. Until recently, this was not a leaky company - the sheer number of people who spoke to the New York Times, albeit off the record, shows how that has changed.

A report in the Wall Street Journal says an internal survey found just 52% of staff said they were confident about the company's future, compared with 84% a year ago.

This new allegations of ethical failings will also embolden politicians and regulators around the world who want to clip Facebook's wings.

Damian Collins, the MP who has been battling to get Mark Zuckerberg to appear in front of Westminster's Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, tweeted a link to the New York Times article, calling it "a damning story about Facebook which underlines why we need to hold their top people to account".

It seems unlikely that anyone at the top will lose their job over these revelations, although it now appears that the departure of the security chief, Alex Stamos, may have been linked to tensions over his desire to be more open about Russian activity.

But the reputations of Mark Zuckerberg, once the boy genius who had mastered leadership as well as technology, and Sheryl Sandberg, the wise elder stateswoman of Facebook, may never recover.

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