Steven Levy on Facebook's inside story

From Afternoons, 3:08 pm on 11 March 2020

A young Mark Zuckerberg was an Augustus Caesar fanboy who loved games like Risk, where the goal is to conquer the world.

That’s according to Wired's editor at large Steven Levy who was granted unprecedented access to Zuckerberg and other key Facebook players for his book Facebook, The Inside Story.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in April.

Mark Zuckerberg Photo: AFP

Levy met Zuckerberg at a technology conference in 2006, after hearing that his network of college students was taking off.

“We sat down to talk and I asked him a few questions, and he just stared at me.”

While he’s a lot better at communication these days, every so often Zuckerberg will still just stare at you when you ask him a question, says Levy.

“Executives called it Sauron’s gaze.”

Levy says it wasn't that Zuckerberg was having stroke or hated his writing, like he first thought, it is that he’s absorbing information. “They call him a learning machine.”

Zuckerberg might be a lover of history, but does he learn from it?

Early on, the founder told Levy that Facebook runs on an engineering mentality, comparing running it to writing a big project in code. And he’s using that mentality to try and fix Facebook’s current problems, says Levy.

“But I think you need more than that, think more creatively, and widely and in terms of ideas and policy.”

Levy found cases, where Zuckerberg’s top executives had questioned a particular feature or suggested that people should have the choice of opting into something.

“For instance, the status of the posts people make changed from being limited to something only their friends can see, to something everyone on the network can see, a billion people, at the time there was 350 million.”

Zuckerberg wanted them to push it out regardless.

“Their motto is ‘move fast and break things’ and that kind of encapsulates the recklessness with which they move.”

“He controls so much of Facebook, over half the voting stock, that he gets his own way every time.”

In 2006, Zuckerberg kept a notebook called The Journal of Change as he redesigned Facebook from the early days of the network he designed in his dorm room to something scaled to everyone in the world.

“All the designs and plans were in this book, which I had heard that he destroyed a few years after he wrote it, but I actually managed to get hold of some copies of pages from this one key notebook…and it really was like a window into his psyche at the time and a window into how Facebook was designed.”

When Levy showed Zuckerberg the notebook in 2019 to verify its authenticity, Levy says he went into a kind of rapture.

“It was almost like he was transported back to the time where he was in charge of a company of maybe 20 odd people and happily designing the future.”

Facebook has faith in sharing being a good thing, says Levy.

“Other people, when they found out how much they were sharing, weren’t too happy about it. Of course there were privacy activists pointing this out all along.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal made this real, he says. 

Levy found it wasn’t so much an anomaly, but something Facebook had built into its plans as early as 2010 when they were giving away “an incredible amount of information” to software developers.

“Facebook thought that it would help sharing to give away this information, which was something that people weren’t aware was happening.”

Zuckerberg believes that in order for Facebook to survive, he needs to keep doing big bold things, says Levy.

Even after the company was the target of a lot of criticism, he didn’t slow down.

The US elections

Facebook is still coming to grips with the role it played in the 2016 US election, says Levy.

“They were slow to come around and admit culpability for that election.”

There are three key things that happened, he says.

During his campaigning, Trump used Facebook for advertising and the company helped his team hone its campaigns.

“They gave the same offer to the Clinton campaign, which turned them down.”

People also found it was very profitable to spread disinformation, he says.

“You get people to come to your site, which was usually a make-believe publication with a make-believe story and when people clicked on it, and they did in great numbers, the person posting it would get the money from the ads on the page.”

Some of the stories far outperformed content from real news media, he says.

Facebook also didn’t anticipate Russia placing ads on its platform, says Levy.

“Their security team was more focused on maybe people hacking into accounts, they thought that was a way to keep the election secure and they totally missed the prospect of Russians committing the same kind of disinformation campaign as they’ve been doing for many years but only on the social networking platform,” he says.

“Facebook [was] basically hosting a foreign attack on the election.”

What about the 2020 election?

“They have spent a lot of resources to try to fight some of the things that happened in the previous election. They’re more aggressive about labelling well-circulated false stories, they’re working with the government more to try to identify foreign involvement…but there are issues still.”

Facebook’s current policy is to allow politicians to say whatever they want in ads and the company won’t fact-check them.

“A lot of people see that’s a way that politicians can tilt the playing field and a lot of people question Mark Zuckerberg’s very adamant stance that he’s not going to take down these ads even if they admit they’re false and politicians are purposefully saying lies about an opponent."

Is the world better off with Facebook?

There are almost 3 billion people who use Facebook and it's other apps What's App and Instagram.

"They're on there because they get something out of it...even skeptics love it when Facebook tells all of their friends and people they know 'hey it's so and so's birthday today'...but it has to be balanced with the toxic things that come with Facebook."

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