Facebook Definers Public Affairs, growing morale problem.
For some time now, Facebook has copped to being “slow.”
Confronted with any question about Russian interference on the platform, or the scourge of misinformation, Facebook has gotten comfortable saying it was “slow to recognize” the problem, before rattling off a list of every step it has since taken to solve it.
Everyone now agrees that Facebook was slow. But why was the company slow? In a major new report today, the New York Times sets out to understand why: what took Facebook so long to identify the most significant security issues on its platform. Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas interviewed more than 50 people to tell the tale.
The result is a portrait of fractured leadership that too often sought to delegate key decisions to others. At the same time, the company mounted a rigorous effort to promote key friends in Congress, undermine its corporate and legislative enemies, and push conspiracy theories and opposition research onto reporters. The company had worked with Definers, a dark-arts public-relations firm that specializes in information warfare, but Facebook severed the relationship on Wednesday following the New York Times report.
The entire piece is a must-read for anyone who reads The Interface. But two key points stand out:
The long knives have come for Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s charismatic chief operating officer has largely escaped scrutiny for her role in the company’s failures to protect the platform. With this story, that time has come to an end. The reporters trace how Sandberg and her hand-picked lobbyists, Marne Levine and Joel Kaplan, pressured its security team not to fully disclose Russian activity on the platform. She and Kaplan argued that doing so would rile conservatives, threatening the business. (This ultimately happened anyway, over far less consequential matters, and the business held up fine.)
Sandberg also personally (and successfully) lobbied the Democratic senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, against criticizing Facebook in strong terms. And she offered public support for the noxious Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which has put the lives of many sex workers at great risk, in hopes of shoring up support among Republican lawmakers.
When I checked in with some former Facebookers today, their biggest takeaway from the story was that internal doubts about Sandberg were now finally taking hold in the popular narrative around the company.
Facebook fights dirty. Most public-relations efforts are relatively benign. But somewhere around the time that a company becomes a global superpower, it gets the idea that it can bend reality to its will by hiring unscrupulous PR agencies to advance their pet issues while leaving no trace of their involvement.
Facebook, which has spent the past two years preaching the gospel of “transparency,” has leaned hard into this idea. Some of their hired assassins work for Definers Public Affairs, a Washington-based agency that mounted an astroturf campaign in an effort to drag Google and Twitter into the Russia issue. It worked. From the report:
On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.
The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. While the NTK Network does not have a large audience of its own, its content is frequently picked up by popular conservative outlets, including Breitbart.
So the left hand fights misinformation in the News Feed, while the right hand seeds fear, uncertainty, and doubt to reporters. The conspiracy theories are coming from inside the house.
Why is Facebook fighting so hard to drag down its competitors? Deepa Seetharaman had one answer, in the day’s other great behind-the-scenes story about Facebook. Morale at the company, which previously was quite high, experienced a significant decline this year. She writes:
Amid a plunge in the stock price, ongoing leadership turmoil and critical media coverage, just over half of employees said they were optimistic about Facebook’s future, down 32 percentage points from the year earlier, according to the survey, which was taken by nearly 29,000 employees. Fifty-three percent said Facebook was making the world better, down 19 percentage points from a year ago.
As a result, Seetharaman reports, more Facebook employees have begun to look for the exits. In October, employees said they planned to stay at Facebook another 3.9 years, down from 4.3 years last year. And 12 percent said they would leave in less than a year, up from 10 percent the year before.
At the Washington Post, Lizza Dwoskin talked to one of Instagram’s original employees, Bailey Richardson, who quit shortly after cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in September. She recently deleted her account. “It feels like we’re all addicted to a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore,” she told Dwoskin. “So I wanted to make space for something that really does.”
These employee departures, of course, have always been the most immediate threat to Facebook in the wake of the disclosures of the past two years. The Cambridge Analytica scandal may have put a dent in the company’s stock price, but the real danger is that people won’t want to work there anymore. If employees were honest on their surveys, more than 3,000 of them will be gone by this time next year.
But there’s a new threat to Facebook, too: the incoming Democratic Congress. David Cicilline, the top Democrat on the House antitrust subcommittee, had this to say after reading the Times’ story:
”It is long past time for us to take action. I am confident that, despite Facebook’s best efforts to buy Congress’s silence, the will of the American people will prevail. Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans.”
THE AMAZON DEAL
The debate over Amazon’s sweetheart deals with New York and Virginia extended into a second day. I heard from lots of you, and your feedback was mixed. A quick sample:
“The biggest buyers of cloud services are banks and the federal government, hence New York and D.C.
Bezos played the politicians like drums to extract taxpayer subsidies at the expense of other, small businesses who have a higher corporate tax burden, just like Musk and every owner of a sports franchise not named Joe Robbie. Government is designed to protect the big against the small.”
Reader K.D. was more sympathetic:
The greater NYC and D.C. areas have some of the highest concentrations of tech talent in the United States, are highly visible, and have a pipeline of future workers from the areas’ many educational institutions. Why should Amazon limit the benefits to itself, and its shareholders, of its new HQ’s location?
In the Wall Street Journal, Laura Stevens and Shayndi Raice walk us through how Amazon made its decision. The company elected to create two new regional offices instead of a singular “HQ2” in September after coming to the belief that no one metropolitan area could supply Amazon with all the workers it will need to put a tax on all economic activity.
Aside from New York and Virginia, Amazon also elected to build a smaller “operations facility” in Nashville. The remaining 17 finalists were left with nothing, despite having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per city on the quest, according to the report. Here’s a representative quote from a losing city:
Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, had his own opinions about the contest. His city entered but wasn’t a finalist.
Amazon “used their brand not to have any social impact,” he said. “They used it to pit one community against the other and everybody fell for it. Us included.”
Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the deal has been muted, aside from some happy talk by New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor, and Virginia’s senators. But New York’s senators, as Makena Kelly noted today, initially said nothing:
They’ve released no public statements, and they declined to comment when reached by The Verge. The silence could be a sign that both senators are keeping a low profile as the more moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic party face off over the controversial Amazon deal.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the lawmakers who voiced their objection to an NYC headquarters, tweeting yesterday that “displacement is not community development. Investing in luxury condos is not the same thing as investing in people and families. Shuffling working class people out of a community does not improve their quality of life.”
Later in the day, though, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand posted a statement signaling her disdain: “One of the wealthiest companies in history should not be receiving financial assistance from the taxpayers while too many New York families struggle to make ends meet.”
But hey, won’t those 50,000 new Amazon employees eventually leave and start their own companies, turning Regional Offices 1 and 2 into thriving tech hubs? Well, they haven’t in Seattle, Dan Primack reports:
One of the most remarkable parts of Amazon’s success is how few other successes it has spawned, particularly in its home market of Seattle. In an age of plentiful unicorns, there seems to be only one (Convoy) founded by Amazon vets near the mothership.
The controversy over the deal didn’t really seem to grow worse on Wednesday. But it didn’t seem to get much better, either.
Facebook Says Any Return to China Would Preserve Free Expression
Facebook released written responses to questions US senators had asked the company earlier this year. There was a lot of deflection and dodging, Sarah Frier reports, but the company had this to say about a China return:
“In keeping with these commitments, rigorous human rights due diligence and careful consideration of free expression and privacy implications would constitute important components of any decision on entering China,” the company told U.S. senators. “Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, and no decisions have been made around the conditions under which any possible future service might be offered in China.“
Trump Is Spreading Bogus Voter Fraud Claims On Twitter. Twitter Says It’ll Talk About It In 2019.
Charlie Warzel asks Twitter what they’re going to do about the president tweeting unfounded claims of voter fraud. Twitter says they will get back to us all in the New Year.
Google’s “Smart City” in Toronto Faces New Resistance
Waterfront Toronto, a Canadian government agency, and Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Alphabet Inc. are planning to develop 12 acres of the Toronto waterfront. Ava Kofman reports that Google’s secrecy is turning the community against the project:
From the start, activists, technology researchers, and some government officials have been skeptical about the idea of putting Google, or one of its sister companies, in charge of a city. Their suspicions about turning part of Toronto into a corporate test bed were triggered, at first, by the company’s history of unethical corporate practices and surreptitious data collection. They have since been borne out by Quayside’s secret and undemocratic development process, which has been plagued by a lack of public input — what one critic has called “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” In recent months, a series of prominent resignations from advisory board members, along with organized resistance from concerned residents, have added to the growing public backlash against the project.
Facing UK Regulation, Big Tech Sends a Lobbyist to London
The Internet Association, which represents members including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, is opening up a UK office, Issie Lapowsky reports.
Juul cuts flavored nicotine supply to stores and shutters its social media
E-cigarette maker Juul is one of the biggest consumer tech companies of its generation, and it has thrived on social media, where teens share endless memes and vaping videos. In an effort to stave off further regulation, the company is deleting its Facebook and Instagram accounts, Rachel Becker reports.
As for video, “YouTube will only be used for posting testimonials of former adult smokers who have switched to the JUUL system, in part to support online content on JUUL.com.” To keep users from posting their own DIY Juul ads, the company says it will rely on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to ban posts that make smoking or vaping look appealing.