It may be hard to recall now, but there was a time when Facebook loved the media, and the tech press, by and large, reciprocated the feeling. When the company had an announcement to make, journalists and bloggers were invited to its hip campus in Palo Alto, or whatever bedazzling venue was hosting its annual F8 developers conference. Facebook would stipulate the conditions under which the media could break news, and the media would agree. There would be artisanal coffees and hor d’oeuvres. Several years ago, when I arrived at Facebook’s New York office for a briefing with the company’s new “empathy” team, a man on skates approached me with a tray full of hamburgers and French fries. “Hey bro, want fries with that?” The roller man asked, before I went into my meeting. I politely declined.
While the relationship between the company and journalists was a little weird, it represented how Silicon Valley operated for a time. On one level, it was little different than countless industries before it, like sports, where reporters are wooed with privileged access, allowed into the locker room or training facility or team hotel. Furthermore, just as many sportswriters were drawn into their profession on account of their genuine affection for what they covered, many early tech journalists were gadget or computer-science enthusiasts who were awed by the new innovations they found themselves writing about.
Apple, back in those days, seemed to take negative reviews and harsh coverage in stride—it was all part of the business; a certain amount of negative coverage couldn’t be helped. Facebook, on the other hand, could seem thin-skinned when journalists broke with their mating rituals. In 2011, I wrote a seemingly innocuous story about the company’s plans, which they had once previously denied, to release an iPad app. It seemed like a nothing burger. Facebook was fast becoming one of the most popular apps in the world; Apple offered a huge platform; presumably, this would enrich both companies. Nevertheless, shit hit the fan at Facebook HQ shortly after my story was published. I heard from company sources that Facebook executives blamed Apple’s communications department for the leak. Facebook employees were dragged into their bosses’ offices and accused of divulging information. One source called me, terrified that they would be fired, even though they were not a source for my blog post. The problem, it seemed, was that Facebook wasn’t in control. There are few things that bother Mark Zuckerberg more.
Since those early days of covering the company, the coverage of Facebook has moved away from the tech blogs, and onto the front pages of the national newspapers and the top of the nightly news. It is often the anecdote du jour for most things related to Donald Trump and Russia, the end of privacy, and anything else wrong with planet Earth. A little overblown? Maybe. In retrospect, it seems like they had it coming. But that’s not how Facebook sees things. “Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives are fed up with The New York Times,” NBC’s Dylan Byers reported last week, after the paper’s recent intensive investigations into the company’s privacy breaches, ties to Russian meddling, and decision to hire an oppo research firm to look into George Soros’s finances. The inciting event, according to Byers’s sources, was the decision by the Times to buy a sponsored post on Facebook to promote “a step-by-step guide to breaking up with” Facebook and Instagram. Part of the frustration, these people said, was their belief that Times reporters were more concerned with a Pulitzer Prize than the nuances of how Facebook works.
Is Zuckerberg right? I think it’s a little more complicated. As a Times alum, I know that the organization hires many of the most talented journalists in the business. Many of them are competitive, driven both by the validation of their peers and the intense pressure of their responsibility. The paper’s former executive editor, Jill Abramson, critiqued the Times for some biased coverage of Donald Trump in her forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth. (To be fair, the book is overwhelmingly about the rise of digital media, but Fox News ran with the line.) I equate the Times coverage of Trump with their coverage of Facebook. They can’t help but cover the topic aggressively and from a viewpoint that is slightly skewed toward not being evil. Is that wrong? Maybe, but it’s human. If there is anything wrong in this transaction, it’s that journalism as an industry still pretends that it’s possible to be completely unbiased, when the one thing us humans have beyond all else is bias. Journalists can try to control it, they can try to hide it, they can stuff it in a box while they work for a newspaper or TV news show, but eventually, it’s going to come out.
If any two people on earth should understand that, it’s Trump and Zuckerberg. They have built entire livelihoods on bias and nothing else. Trump knows how to stoke his base or rile up his enemies by being infantile and saying outlandish things, tapping into their most primal emotions. And Zuckerberg presumably knows that biases encourage people to click on links on Facebook, share articles and videos and “Like” things or hate them. Facebook is a bias machine, after all, and it’s made Zuckerberg into one of the richest men on earth. If he doesn’t like what people are writing about him or his company, then maybe it’s time to change what the company does, rather than try to change the people who cover it.
Anyone familiar with Facebook employees will tell you the company often seems like a cult. Leveraging personal data, according to this logic, isn’t a violation of personal rights, but rather a way to offer a better product by delivering more meaningful ads. (I’m not kidding, people there really believe that.) And while Zuckerberg and his team may feel slighted that The New York Times is covering them aggressively, Facebook still seems largely unconcerned that its core product is upsetting so many people. It’s as if the company owned a restaurant where the food is making everyone sick, and all Mark Zuckerberg cares about is why the critics aren’t giving him five stars.
Facebook isn’t all bad for society, but in its current instantiation, it’s pretty unhealthy. That’s why Facebook’s former V.P. for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, said last year that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” It’s why Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, called social validation a “feedback loop” that is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” It’s why study after study after study finds that Facebook makes teens more depressed, why social media could be driving up suicide rates in young girls, and why psychologists have found that Facebook is akin to gambling and drugs for our brains. It’s why a study found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the worse they felt about themselves and their lives. Is this the Times’s fault, or Zuckerberg’s own? What seems certain, one thinks, is that journalists won’t relent until the company owns up.
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