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An Ugly Truth review: How did Mark Zuckerberg build an empire twice the size of China?

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle For Domination

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang                   The Bridge Street Press £20 

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Since founding Facebook in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg has achieved the kind of power that few on the planet can rival, and none could imagine before the internet. Its mission, in Zuckerberg’s words, is to ‘connect the world’. It’s been credited with driving the Arab Spring and the Women’s March, but it is also implicated in the rise of populism and even the spread of genocide. With 2.85 billion monthly users, it has twice the population of China. Heads of state, unable to control it, court it instead.

There are a few rival theories about how Zuckerberg ascended to this extraordinary position. Some regard him as a genius programmer. Others, including Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang in this book, point to his exceptional ruthlessness: whenever a rival has threatened Facebook’s dominance, Zuckerberg has moved fast to snap them up (it now owns Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving Google’s YouTube as its only serious competition). But perhaps the main reason for Zuckerberg’s success is that he is a preternaturally boring person.

From a business perspective, his relentless focus on the task at hand is an advantage. From a storytelling point of view, it’s a drag. Other tech moguls have used their wealth to fund eye-popping eccentricities. PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has his zeal for libertarian politics and unstinting pursuit of grudges (which eventually destroyed the website Gawker). Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have their obsession with space flight. Even nerdy Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a hinterland, according to recent divorce hearings which have raised a history of questionable behaviour.

Since founding Facebook in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg has achieved the kind of power that few on the planet can rival, and none could imagine before the internet

Since founding Facebook in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg has achieved the kind of power that few on the planet can rival, and none could imagine before the internet

The most interesting detail that can be summoned about Zuckerberg in An Ugly Truth is that he gets sweaty when nervous – negotiations for key interviews and appearances in front of congressional committees include the stipulation that the air conditioning be set to frigid. He’s married to his college sweetheart, he lacks any obvious vices, and he doesn’t even appear to have an underpinning philosophy (he took an interest in Ayn Rand’s theories under the influence of Thiel, but more because he was ‘easily swayed’ than out of conviction).

Facebook is undeniably important to the future of democracy, security and personal relationships everywhere. But it’s hard to build a compelling narrative when your leading man is so completely charisma-free. To counteract that, Frenkel and Kang bring in Sheryl Sandberg, who has served as Facebook’s chief operating officer since 2008. A committed feminist (she wrote the book Lean In) who has been the public face of one of the world’s most morally dubious companies for more than a decade, Sandberg is a slightly more complex figure

Her interpersonal skills and political connections made her an asset to the company, but they also set her apart from the coders who are its backbone. This leads to a rift in the company, with ‘her’ people being referred to internally as ‘FOSS’ (Friends of Sheryl Sandberg). Ultimately, though, there’s no power struggle for Frenkel and Kang to dramatise, because Facebook is so entirely under Zuckerberg’s control. All Sandberg can do is try to keep up and run damage control after the fact.

It’s hard to build a compelling narrative when your leading man is so completely charisma-free. To counteract that, the authors bring in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

It’s hard to build a compelling narrative when your leading man is so completely charisma-free. To counteract that, the authors bring in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg 

And there’s plenty of damage. In the early years, the main questions about Facebook focused on its fast-and-loose attitude to users’ personal data. When it introduced the news feed in 2006, people were shocked to see details of their personal lives suddenly in full view. But Zuckerberg reasoned that users would come to accept the change, and he was right: the protests were short-lived, and the social network’s growth went on unabated.

That tendency to act first and address the consequences later has remained a part of Facebook’s culture. The company has prioritised engagement and expansion over anything else – in the words of Frenkel and Kang, it was ‘designed to throw gas on the fire of any speech that invoked an emotion, even if it was hateful speech’. That led to Facebook acting as a radicalisation ground in Burma, spurring the genocide against the Rohingya population. Because the company didn’t employ moderators with local languages, it was powerless to act.

Was that a terrible accident or the product of an ethos? The book’s title is taken from a statement by a senior Facebook executive, who said in 2016: ‘The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people is de facto good’ – even if that means connecting bullies to victims or terrorists to each other. But that year, the election of Donald Trump led to more serious scrutiny of online misinformation and Facebook’s role in promoting it. The company’s practices had unwittingly made it the perfect vehicle for attempted Russian interference.

All this suggests that there’s a strong argument for either breaking up Facebook, or setting limits on it. But there’s little chance of that happening to a company which is, as Frenkel and Kang put it, ‘as powerful as a nation state’. Despite its cavalier treatment of other people’s data, Facebook is highly protective of information about itself, so it’s impressive that An Ugly Truth has as much detail as it does. Unfortunately, that’s still not enough to make this book a gripping read, even if it is an important one.

 

The Woman They Could Not Silence

Kate Moore                                                                                                  Scribe £10.99

Rating:

In 1860 two doctors burst into Elizabeth Packard’s bedroom and carried her – literally – to the local railway station, before dumping her on the next train for Jacksonville. A crowd of townspeople had gathered to protest against the kidnap of their minister’s wife, but there was nothing they could do. According to Illinois law, the Rev Theophilus Packard was free to dispose of his ‘property’ however he wanted, and that included Elizabeth, his wife of 21 years.

Within a few hours, 43-year-old Mrs Packard was under lock and key in Jacksonville Insane Asylum, where she would stay for the next three years. All it had taken was for the Reverend to declare that his wife was ‘slightly insane’.

If anyone asked Packard for evidence of Elizabeth’s insanity, he could point to the fact that she had recently started to disagree with him on religious matters which, for a man in his position, was deeply shaming. And on the topic of slavery, which was currently tearing the country in two, Mrs Packard was an abolitionist, while the Rev Packard supported the status quo. What all this boiled down to, according to the asylum’s director, Dr Andrew McFarland, was that Mrs Packard was suffering from ‘excessive application of body and mind’. Basically, she was too clever by half.

One is left feeling that Elizabeth Packard (above) was a more complex woman than the one who emerges from Kate Moore's The Woman They Could Not Silence

One is left feeling that Elizabeth Packard (above) was a more complex woman than the one who emerges from Kate Moore’s The Woman They Could Not Silence

For the next three years, Elizabeth fought to secure her release and to make sure no other married woman ever had to endure the same thing. After numerous cruel setbacks, Elizabeth got her freedom and started an ambitious campaign to reform America’s entire judicial system. Thanks to her, married women could no longer be put in an asylum on the say-so of their husbands.

Next, she turned her attention to married women’s rights, managing to get the law changed in several states so that a wife now had equal access to both her children and her property. She also kept up an energetic writing schedule and made enough money to buy a house in Chicago, where she could live with her six children. She even supported her by now impoverished husband.

It is a thrilling story, and Kate Moore tells it using language that borders at times on the melodramatic. Slightly worrying, too, is the way she glosses over details that are inconvenient to her heroine’s story. What are we to make of the fact that Elizabeth had been in the asylum as a teenager? And why did she write a love letter to married Dr McFarland, a man whom she later pursued through the courts? These aren’t deal-breakers, but one is left feeling that Elizabeth Packard was a more complex woman than the one who emerges here.

Kathryn Hughes


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