- archived recording
(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is Casey Newton, the tech reporter behind the Platformer Substack. He’s also my dear friend and a tenant in my house in San Francisco. He always pays his rent on time, but grudgingly. We both follow Facebook’s every move and often come away with different perspectives. So I wanted to chat with him about Mark’s latest rebrand of Facebook as, quote, “Meta,” the whistleblower fallout, and more.
Casey, welcome to “Sway.”
Thank you so much for having me.
So we disagree sometimes, we have different perspectives.
And we want to chat it out.
Exactly, let’s clear the air.
Let’s clear the air. Let’s start with Facebook’s rebrand. They’re calling themselves Meta, which is the Greek word, apparently, for beyond, although other people have different meanings, like dead in Hebrew. Beyond what, we’re not sure. Maybe beyond shame. Let’s listen to a clip from last week’s developers conference where Mark introduced the idea of the metaverse.
- archived recording (mark zuckerberg)
We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet. We’ll be able to feel present, like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are. We’ll be able to express ourselves in new, joyful, completely immersive ways. And that’s going to unlock a lot of amazing new experiences. When I send my parents a video of my kids, they’re going to feel like they’re right in the moment with us, not peering through a little window. When you play a game with your friends, you’ll feel like you’re right there together in a different world, not just on your computer by yourself.
Oh, dear, Casey, please react before I do.
[LAUGHS] Well, it’s a vision, you know? This is what technology people do, is, they’re like, what if we did this? And then most people are like, no, that’s dumb, and then they do it anyway. And then it makes $100 million. That’s the history of Silicon Valley.
Did it not seem like an episode of Silicon Valley, which I appeared on, by the way, and should have won an Emmy, which I will disclose right now.
I would say he sounds like he’s trying very hard to sound enthusiastic.
Yeah, didn’t work. So, talk to me, Casey. Give me the download on how you thought about how this went and what you think about it.
Yeah, so I think the first thing to say is we should never give any company too much credit just for changing their name or their logo. I don’t think that it is a world changing move. That said, I do think that there are some really interesting implications. And I think there are some ground for criticism. So where is this interesting? Well, the old Facebook company was 17 years old. Facebook, the thing, was already built. And it just became increasingly clear that Facebook, the app, was not the future of Facebook, the company.
And if it weren’t Zuckerberg, that’s actually kind of a problem because you’re trying to recruit people to build new things, you’re trying to solve hard technological problems. And trying to recruit those people to build Facebook just isn’t as appealing as it once was. And so I think he wanted to plant a flag internally and externally and say, we’re going to go do some really crazy ambitious thing. Come along for that ride. And I do think that informs, let’s say, maybe half of what was behind this move.
So, basically, they’re doubling down on the metaverse, which Georgia Tech professor Janet Murray described as, quote, “magical Zoom meeting that has all the playful release of Animal Crossing.” But go ahead.
So on the other half is all the stuff that you already know. This company has had an absolutely miserable five years. Regulators are trying to break it up. They’ve been found complicit in a lot of really terrible things around the world. Facebook is probably the least trusted of all the big tech companies and when you do surveys. So there are a lot of reasons why Facebook would want to get some distance on this brand.
I want to get to the case for Facebook because you and I disagree. I think they’re beyond saving, in a lot of ways, and you’re much different than I am on that. Tell us what your impressions of his awkward, painful tour of the metaverse was. But don’t go by me. Don’t go by me.
O.K., well, again, so many people have so much personal antipathy for everyone who works at Facebook that I think that they can’t see anything else when they look at that video. And I get that. I mean, I think that we see over and over again in Silicon Valley is that people try things, and they don’t work. And then they try things and they don’t work.
And then someone tries it for the third or fourth or fifth time, and all of a sudden, it works, right? And so I think a lot of people are bringing in the scar tissue that has been building up since the ‘90s, when people were first building up their visions of V.R. And they’re saying, well, it didn’t work in Second Life. Why would it work today?
And I’m just much more open to the idea that stuff changes over time. Social conditions change. We just spent an entire pandemic glued to screens. To me, the idea that as we make screens more immersive, we’re going to want to spend more time using them. It just makes an intuitive sense.
I kept thinking, he thinks he’s Steve Jobs. The guy thinks — and as they say, I knew Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was not my friend. He’s no Steve Jobs, right?
Here’s my thing. I understand why people hate Facebook, but I just always start with the question, like, O.K., but what if it works?
What if it works? What did you like about it? Give me a specific about the demo that was fresh.
Sure, I thought — God, what was fresh? It wasn’t so much that I saw something that felt fresh. I thought when you chain all of these things together and you show people, I’m inside this virtual space. I picked out my avatar. Now I’m hopping into a video game. Now I’m hopping into a workspace. It just sort of made the case for what the next generation of hardware and software on the internet might look like in a fairly cohesive way. We see bits and pieces of this all the time. It’s been unusual to see a company kind of stitch the whole thing together and lay out a vision. And again, there’s plenty to critique in the vision.
I’ve just seen it in “Ready Player One,” “The Matrix.” You see it in movies. You see it quite a bit. So creatively, it’s been around, the concept. But is there anything that stuck out that you thought, that is really interesting?
I don’t think there was anything in that video where I was like, wow, they’ve really nailed a new use case, or they’ve really kind of found some bold path forward. It’s just, they’re putting the pieces together in the right way. Look, at the end of the day, it’s all just media, right? It’s all just kind of people talking to each other, interacting. It’s pretty hard to reinvent that wheel. But if you can create a new experience around it, sell a bunch of hardware around it, and create new social experiences inside it, I just think it could be really profound.
So who is the competitors here? Who are the competitors?
So HTC has Vive, which is a thing that is on the market. And I don’t actually know how well it’s doing. But then most of the other stuff is happening behind closed doors. So we know that Apple is working on something like this. We know that Snap is working on something like this. Microsoft has Hololens, but they’ve built that explicitly as an enterprise product right now, so it’s kind of business only. Google is also going to do something here, too, right?
So all the players are coming for it, which, to me, is one more reason. It’s like if you watched the metaverse presentation, it’s like, ugh, I hate it. Like, O.K., fine. But literally all the tech giants are working on this stuff, right? And it’s like, are we betting against all five or six of them?
No, which is interesting. So let’s move on to the Facebook Files and Frances Haugen. Shouldn’t they be pouring every available dollar into fixing their actual business?
Yeah, so I think, one, absolutely yes. To me, the single most galling fact in the entire set of documents that Frances Haugen has provided us with is that Facebook, of all the money it spent to fight misinformation, 87% of it was concentrated in the United States, right? So if you think Facebook is bad in the United States, you need to understand, you’re getting the very best platinum version of it and that people in other countries are getting a much worse version of it.
Facebook literally cannot understand many of the languages in which people are posting on its service. And certainly it hasn’t developed any high tech solutions, like sort of automated hate speech detection and that sort of thing. And that is a scandal. So Facebook would come along and say, well, we spend more than anybody else. And I think it’s clear reading the Facebook Files that it’s absolutely not enough.
Talke a little bit more about that because this is — this Facebook Papers. These are internal documents leaked from a former employee, Frances Haugen. She was a product manager in the Civic Integrity Unit, I believe. Those papers, of course, reveal — it’s like so much stuff, and there’s more to come, apparently. There’s going to be more data dumps on that. Knowing about the mental health impact of Instagram on girls, the companies profiting off of polarization. There’s anti-vax stuff. There’s election stuff. It’s all over the place. Some people felt that the timing of the rebranding was not a coincidence and was a distraction. Mark said it was not. Talk about overall what the impact of the Facebook Papers have been.
I think it has been really damaging to the company. There was a story inside these papers that talked about the recruiting challenges that Facebook has had since 2019 when a lot of this sort of negative coverage really started to accelerate. I imagine the next time we see that document, it is going to be even worse, right?
This company, people who graduate from Stanford or M.I.T. with their C.S. degrees, if they can avoid working for Facebook, they might do it. Ultimately, that is the biggest existential threat to the company, I think, is just smart and good people won’t want to work there. So I think that has been really damaging. You mentioned the fact that the company came out and rebranded in the middle of all of this.
And I think that speaks to another thing people really hate about this company, which is that it is so brazen, right? It knows how it’s going to look, and it does it anyway. And there have been millions of ways that that has been true over the past 17 years. In some ways, they’re very responsive to public pressure, which I think makes them interesting and fun to cover. And in other ways, they just don’t care about the optics at all. It’s just like a weird tension inside that company.
I think sometimes he comes under the sway of a P.R. person who knows what they’re talking about. And then he forgets it. Says forget it. I know best. I remember when I was told not to do this, and I did it, and I won. I’ve heard him say it, actually. You know what I mean? The same way. But let’s go back to the papers. Haugen first went to The Wall Street Journal, then she went to Congress. And then she made her doctrines available to many outlets, including The New York Times as well as Casey Newton, initiated a consortium among journalists for getting out the news, and you’re part of it. You were referring to documents offered to the consortium as the leftovers which I thought was really funny.
So explain for people who she is and how she’s rolling this out.
Yeah. So she’s a sort of longtime Silicon Valley tech worker. Had worked at Google, had worked at Pinterest, and was working on integrity issues at Facebook. And like a lot of people who work on integrity issues at Facebook, just grew increasingly concerned about what you was seeing and came to feel like the company was not taking her concerns seriously to give proper credit. My understanding is that Frances actually did not go looking for a source to leak these documents to. Actually, Jeff Horowitz contacted her initially on LinkedIn.
They met hiking, right?
And they — yes, they went they went on a hike. I’m told that he also went to Puerto Rico and they ate sushi together there. So there was kind of a long getting to know you period between them before she finally agreed to share some documents. She was collecting documents that entire time. And then eventually, The Facebook Files series came out.
I think what’s interesting and what is still kind of an untold story is that at some point, Frances decided that she wanted to go bigger than the Journal. I think at that point, she had started working with some advisors who told her sort of how big this thing could be. And then you started to see this incredibly well coordinated rollout that included a “60 Minutes” appearance, congressional testimony, and then this consortium that I was a part of.
Yeah, what was interesting is initially, Facebook essentially called her and no one and a loser in one of the tweets, unfortunate tweets, by the P.R. people. She’s pretty good. I was like, whoa!
They didn’t call her a loser.
You know what I mean. She wasn’t in the room.
They didn’t call her a loser. But they did say this really funny thing —
That is a loose version of loser.
She was never in a meeting —
Come on with that. That’s like code word.
It is a verse — I just don’t —
That’s like the “Let’s go, Brandon” — of “Let’s go, Brandon” as a technology. I’m just telling you. But go ahead.
Yes, there was a dog whistle there implying that she was not a high level executive for sure.
She wasn’t in C level meetings. She didn’t have a C.
In any case, so you got this consortium. And explain what it is because Facebook was trying to impugn it, saying it was a vast media conspiracy of some sort.
Yeah. I mean, it was really interesting and fun thing to be a part of. There have been other consortiums where the journalists really work together. And this was not one of those consortiums. Everyone in there was like, we want to write our best version of the story that we think is most interesting, and we’re not going to tell you what we’re working on, and we’re only going to coordinate essentially around the embargo date like when are we going to put stuff out there —
It was on Slack. You guys all cooperated on Slack. Is that correct?
Yes, they created a Slack. The name of the Slack was apparently, we’re a consortium now, which was very funny and I think just sort of speaks to the ambivalence that people had about the project the entire time.
And then it was The New York Times, The Atlantic, as you mentioned, Guardian — all kinds of people.
Look, I mean, talk about this from a journalistic perspective, Kara. I think about all the great coverage you did about companies like Yahoo and Uber over the years. Just imagine when someone calls you and is like, hey, do you want like 1,500 pages of documents from inside these — like, of course, you’re going to say yes. Who knows what’s going to be in there? And it’s not even because everything is going to be a scandal. It’s just you’re going to learn so much about how this company works. And that to me, that’s been the real gift of it is just understanding how these people talk to each other and what is the process for effecting change within this massive bureaucracy.
So talk about Haugen really quickly. So she’s got you all sort of — I hate to use her from dancing to her tune, but she’s coordinating this very well in that idea, and yet didn’t put strictures on you. She has crypto money, she put that out there, meaning I’m not doing this for the money, in case anyone was asking, because people were starting to ask that. How do you look at her as a character? Who does she strike you as?
So I would say I find her very compelling in a few different ways. I mean, one is I think that ultimately, she did do something in the public interest, right? We benefit from knowing how badly Facebook has underserved the rest of the world, right? She has added a lot of fuel for important discussions among regulators, that sort of thing. But I would also say that — and you can see this in the congressional testimony — when you ask her a question in which she was not directly involved, she’s the first to tell you, we’re getting a little outside my area of expertise here. And then we get closer to her area of expertise, she provides a lot of expertise, right? So one thing that’s really important because not every whistleblower does that. And then the second thing is these documents came with absolutely no strings attached, right? Like obviously, they were picked as she was working with Jeff on this series. And so they reflect certain themes. But she just gave those documents through intermediaries to Congress, to journalists, and then it was up to the journalist to sort of draw their own conclusions. So you compare that to like how Facebook tries to manage a story when they’re pitching me, and the management is much more aggressive. So I appreciated that from her.
You wrote a column which I called you about. I’m like, you apologist. Talking about some of the documents between the workers at Facebook who were complaining to Zuckerberg about especially January 6th to him and Mike Schroepfer, who was the C.T.O. who’s stepping down soon, and that you didn’t know who was really important and who wasn’t. Talk a little bit about that idea is that some of this stuff is confusing because it may not be an indictment of Facebook necessarily.
Yes. So one of the things I did in Platformer was I interviewed somebody who used to work for the company on their integrity team about what are these documents basically that we’re looking at, why are there so many posts inside this company. And one of the things that this person pointed out to me is that because all of the names are redacted in the documents, which is really important for the safety and privacy of these employees, but you don’t actually know, well, who actually has clout here, right? And is this somebody who works on the subject matter or is this like an intern who’s chiming in from a million miles away from the subject area? So that sort of helped put it into context.
At the same time, I do think that there are a lot of important conclusions that you can draw without knowing necessarily who said what. But I do think really interrogating the documents themselves and trying to understand the context and the circumstances that they were made in just make you smart about it.
Because it could be people just mouthing off like they do in many different company things. And at the same time, they do reflect there’s an internal rebellion going on within the company. Do you agree with that?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve said that to you. And it’s and it’s absolutely true. I mean, clearly, this is the thing that really blows my mind. We have never seen a company where more people at such high levels have come out afterwards and say, this company is bad and dangerous and it needs to change, right?
After they’ve left.
Well, but they’re saying it when they’re still there, right? That’s what the documents show us is that like up and down, you have people inside the company ringing alarm bell. Sometimes they answer the alarms, sometimes they don’t. But I just think that is really somewhat chilling, right?
You’re right. I think, also, the people that are at the top that sort of leave and then say shitty things about the companies a lot, which never happened before. I think we both can agree.
Yeah. I mean, you have somebody like Brian Acton who’s one of the co-founders of WhatsApp. And so it made $19 billion selling it to Facebook. And when he leaves, what does he say? Delete Facebook. I mean, these are just extraordinary things.
But the company is responsive to feedback, it seems. On Tuesday, for example, they announced Facebook — Meta — would put the brakes on using its facial recognition system, which means it’ll leap more than a billion facial recognition templates or face prints. But the company won’t eliminate the underlying software. So tell me what you think about this shift?
Yeah. So I think the first thing to say is sort of why did Facebook build this technology. It was a growth hack, right? The idea was back in the days, when all of us would upload our photos to Facebook, Facebook wanted to figure out who was in your photos so that it could tag and then notify them so they would come back on Facebook. But then, of course, since then, we’ve seen all these terrible uses of this technology. And one of them — this company Clearview AI just would go on Facebook and would scrape all of those faces and then give it to repressive regimes, right? So on one hand, I think it’s great that Facebook is shutting this down. On the other hand, I think that that feature’s value as a growth hack had already been all the way used up before Facebook announced that.
Yeah, absolutely. The company cited basic societal concerns for the change. But again, the timing, as always, looks performative a little bit. There is already scrutiny with Frances Haugen and the Facebook Papers. But this is them trying to cut it off. So Casey, I think you and I disagree on how much responsibility rests on Facebook slash Meta’s shoulders. One of the things you did say — you wrote last week, the workers within the company are, quote, “Trying diligently to rein in the platform’s worst abuses but that they’re facing external pressures over which they have no control. The rising right wing authoritarians in the U.S. and India did not begin on the platform.”
O.K., are you absolving them of the blame? Because they built it. They shouldn’t have built it then. That’s my feeling. It’s like, too bad. But talk about that because you and I disagree on this. I think they have ponied up to the bar and taken all the money and are running the very worst city on the digital planet, essentially.
Totally. And by the way, I do think there’s truth there. But I’m glad we’re getting into this because I think this is at the heart of it, and this is why I do feel like a Facebook apologist some of the time. I think if you pull the plug on Facebook and it went away, Mark Zuckerberg is not the C.E.O., the company doesn’t exist, I actually don’t think you would improve the internet that much. I think you would sort of disperse all the problems we’re talking about to a much wider range of sites. Now that in itself would have some benefits and it would also have some drawbacks.
I think there are some cases in which Facebook is uniquely responsible for harm, and we should talk about them. And then there are other things about which it is simply the internet that is at fault. And I feel like a great unasked question in all of this is, is the internet good? And if so, why do we think so, right? Because so many of the terrible things that are happening on Facebook are happening on a million other websites, right?
So I try to bring that nuance to it because I think people truly believe in this magic wand of end Facebook and we will have our old reality back. And those people are all kidding themselves.
I think Facebook has made it worse because it’s centralized, it’s organized, it has every element that allows this to be amplified and weaponized more than almost any other tech platform we have out there. Argue against me.
Yes. So I will argue against you, but I will also say that Facebook, because of its scale and its speed, does magnify these problems and make them much worse than any other platform. And that is a place where I would love to see regulators come in and do something, right? I think Facebook should be smaller, and I think that post should take longer to spread. And then I think that would sort of make some improvements.
But at the same time, this company — it is built around connecting people. And people are horrible to each other, right? And so we’re just in this position of constantly holding a company accountable for the way that people interact. And because no other company has put itself in that position and also tried to grow to the size of the entire planet, there’s just sort of never been a target that big. So it’s like I agree with you that there are all these like huge harms, the thing is too big, it’s too fast, we need to intervene, we need to solve these problems. But at the end of the day, we’re still going to have an internet. And by the way, I want there to be an internet. I want to be able to join groups online. When the fascists are running this country in five years, I want to be able to use my platform to say that the next president sucks, right, without having the Department of Justice show up at my doorstep.
That’s a big leap though, right?
Well, I don’t think it’s that big of — I think that when you look at like the proposals in Congress right now, there’s a health misinformation act that will essentially give the government the ability to decide what misinformation is and then regulate it off the internet. Can you imagine life under a Trump 2024 health czar, deciding what health misinformation — this is a nightmare scenario for me. So this is why I just want to be a little bit careful when we are talking about rewriting the rules for the internet. To whom are we giving power, and how much of our own power are we giving up in the process?
This, I do agree with you. But I think they’re making semiautomatic rifles. That’s what they’re selling when we all used to have handguns, right? And so why are they adding those extras? Why are they doing that? That’s what they remind me more of than anything else. And then they sort of fall back on people were shitty to each other before. I’m like, well, they just had knives then, and you gave them a semiautomatic weapon nuclear weapons. I feel they have a responsibility to monitor their use better. Myanmar was really where there were problems. And then there was January 6th where there were really problems. Also on Twitter, by the way.
So this company seems to attract, because they are the internet in most countries, especially, and then had such an impact on January 6th. And you just saw The Washington Post had a story about how they’re using Facebook to raise money, the Trump group, because even though he’s been barred from it, Facebook’s doing nothing about it. They do seem to be at the locus of bad corporate behavior. If I’m being too hard here, please let me know.
So I have written that as well, and I 100% agree. I think there needs to be some kind of baseline set of services that a company is going to provide if it’s going to get into some country and set up a platform where people can start communicating, right, and just saying, well, we’ll wait till the users report the bad things just isn’t going to fly anymore. So yes, I hate that Facebook operates this way. I think it goes back to — they have this paranoia from their earliest days that there was going to be something else that was going to spring up and kill them. And they thought the only way they could avoid that fate was to just get everywhere around the world as fast as humanly —
And it has let — and it is not uncommon and it is the logic of capitalism, right? But at the same time, it has led to so many obvious harms. And by the way, even after the Myanmar tragedy, they continue to use the same playbook in all of these other countries, right? And so that is a real scandal. And the company has never been held accountable for it in any meaningful way.
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Walt Mossberg, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Casey Newton after the break.
The Facebook brand is its future and its past and it makes all its money. Google sort of tried to do this rebrand.
Yeah. I mean, I think Alphabet really was kind of a corporate restructuring. It’s a weird company, they have the X division, they were spending all this money on stuff that wasn’t Google itself. And so I think it’s a little different in the Facebook case, right, because they’re not doing any actual restructuring, they’re not bringing in a C.E.O. of Meta and putting someone else in charge of Facebook but product —
He kept the word, yet, not yet, if you noticed.
Yeah. Well, so I mean, Alex Heath asked about The Verge, in five years, do you think you’ll still be a chairman and C.E.O. of this company? And he did say yes. But five years is not 10 years and a lot can change in 10 years.
Right, right. But the C.E.O. of Meta, not necessarily Facebook. There could be a separate lead person for Facebook.
Yeah. I mean, I do think that there is a restlessness in Zuckerberg. He is happiest when he is making new things. He does not like thinking about all of the policy problems that you and I spend so much time writing and thinking about. And so I can see a world where he does want to give up as much of Facebook the product as possible. And so I will be looking for that.
Who else there besides Zuckerberg is important at Facebook? Who should we be paying attention to and sort of the ups and downs you have? Andrew Bosworth, for example.
Yeah. So Boz is in charge of all of the hardware stuff at Facebook. He’s their incoming C.T.O. He has been with Zuckerberg longer than basically anyone. He was his T.A. at Harvard. So they are tight. And because the hardware division has been doing well, I think Bosworth is sort of on the rise at that company and would be plausible as a future C.E.O.
A guy that gets less attention but should is Alex Schultz, who’s their chief marketing officer. He’s also been at the company for over a decade. And when you read stories about him and my own reporting suggest he is the one cheering on the growth at all times, and he’s the one saying sort of like screw it, let’s do it. And his name shows up a lot in this coverage.
Screw it, let’s do it. What a great way to think of the world. O.K., who else? Chris Cox?
So he’s an interesting one because he was another one who had been at the company since almost the beginning but left over disagreements with Mark’s move toward end-to-end encryption by default in all of the company’s messaging apps. He said he disagreed with the direction of the company. And then he came back last year.
And before he left, a lot of people thought he would be sort of the heir apparent if Mark ever didn’t want to be C.E.O. anymore. I do think that some trust was lost there. I think if you leave the company saying, I don’t agree with the direction of the company, that probably kicks you down a few places on the C.E.O. list. But he remains really popular inside the company, very charismatic figure, and would still be a plausible contender for that job.
He’s a very earnest fella.
Yeah. He cares a lot about the integrity stuff.
He does. He’s like, I’m hurt that people are hurt. I was like, well, I don’t give a fuck about your hurt. Let’s talk about their hurt. But I like him. I got to say, I do like him. What about Sheryl Sandberg?
You know, she’s sort of interesting. The think that I think about with her sometimes is that if she —
This is the C.O.O.
Yes. I think if Sheryl left the company, I don’t think would hire another C.O.O., you know what I mean? I think that her responsibilities would just be distributed to other people in the company. I think they’d have a chief business officer, maybe like some integrity person gets elevated to some higher role. But I don’t see there ever being a next C.O.O. of Facebook.
Why is she so quiet recently?
I don’t know. It’s one of those — right, I assume she has a lot of influence internally. But because is ultimately the sole decision maker, all she can really do is to argue for Mark’s positions on things. So I just don’t think she has quite as much latitude to say things as some people expect.
Yeah, he’s grown up.
Yeah. He can speak for himself.
Do you know what the relationship is like now? None of them are talking to me. So I’m asking you.
I’ve been told exactly what you would expect that I would be told, which is that the relationship is still on pretty solid ground. I was surprised that Sheryl didn’t leave in the spring because I thought — Trump has been dislodged. Facebook is charting a new course for the future. This is a good moment to step away and say, well, I did my time there. Onto the next thing. But I’ve been told that she really sees this business partnership with Zuckerberg and Facebook as like the major partnership of her career and does not have any plans to leave it. And if didn’t leave this spring, I don’t know when she would. It’ll happen eventually. But like it does not seem to be in the near future.
She’s been tarnished quite badly by this entire thing.
I mean, it’s like — in a world where no one is being held accountable for anything, shame is the only weapon the public has. And I do think it’s appropriate to shame the company for all the harms we’ve been talking about. The list of things that I think that Facebook has done that are very bad and hugely consequential — and for which it was never held accountable — is really longer than almost any other company I could name, right? There’s this ever branching series of catastrophes demands scrutiny.
If anything, the thing that shocks me about it is that lawmakers haven’t done anything to stop it, right? There’s just sort of been endless jabber jawing and nothing done in five years. And I mean, when I think of democratic decline, which is like the thing I think about every day, part of what I think about is Congress cannot do anything about these internet platforms that it won’t stop yelling at. Sometimes, I just feel like all of our big institutions are failing at the same time, including Facebook.
All right, so let’s talk a little bit about regulation. One of the things that has happened is that it’s coming. The defense, of course, Facebook has said that we want regulation. Do you believe they actually welcome regulation? Or what should the regulation be that they want versus what should happen?
Yeah. If regulation makes life harder for their competitors, then yes, they welcome regulation. And if regulation just sort of turns a bunch of things that are already doing into law, then they’re happy with that, too. Beyond that, they’re going to fight it like companies fight everything.
O.K. So what should happen? You talked a little bit of Congress. You slap them around a little bit. What should you think happen?
Here’s one thing — we need a national privacy law, right? As offensive as some of the stuff Facebook has done with our data, there are these data brokers that just buy and sell the stuff we’re doing online all day. It’s disgusting, it creates all sorts of real-world harms. I don’t know if you saw the story earlier this summer about the priest that got caught on Grindr. It was because of data brokers. People are able to single out individuals from this ad data and then sort of wreak havoc in their lives. So pass the national privacy already.
Second thing that’s really big for me is we should require access for academics to research, right? We should create a mechanism for them to obtain internal data from social platforms once they reach a certain size. The European Union is in the process of passing something that’s kind of like this. And I still think as much as we know about what’s bad, there’s so much more that we don’t know. And we need real credible academic research on stuff like Instagram and mental health, which you don’t necessarily need access to internal data for, but would help if we did have it.
— stop doing the research? Is this going to be a result of Frances Haugen’s release of research?
For a minute, I thought the answer was going to be no, and I thought they were going to sort of double down in their brazen way and say we’re going to keep doing this. But now, I actually worry. Now, I think that the response has been so bad that they’re going to pull back. And I think that that’s really disappointing.
But they have to know what’s happening on the platform for their business, right? So that they will have insight into what’s happening there, right?
I think you’ll still see plenty of research around how do people feel when they’re using our products and what do people like and what are they not like. And I think you’re going to see a lot less research about mental health effects.
All right, what about antitrust breakup?
So I think — look, there was a time when I was writing the antitrust train harder than anybody. I thought spin out Instagram, spin out WhatsApp. I asked Adam Mosseri and Boz on stage at Code a couple of years ago about this. And then along came TikTok. And guess who is just eating their lunch? It is TikTok. The entire industry is now reorienting itself around these short form videos. It is the most popular app among young people.
And so you could make Facebook spin out Instagram and WhatsApp, and it would really hurt the company. And maybe it would even make those platforms small in a way that made them more manageable. But my concern, which was like, are we going to actually going to have competition in that market has been answered by TikTok.
All right. O.K., all right. What about Section 230?
I don’t like messing around with it. Most of the proposals I see to mess around with it, I think, just leave us in a world that makes online speech and activism and organizing harder. And again, I fully believe there’s going to be another surge of right wing authoritarianism. We are going to want to be able to say what we want on the internet. And so I’m just very leery of messing around with Section 230 unless very narrow cases around like terrorism or crime.
What about any liability though that these companies should suffer?
Yeah, they need to be liable.
For what though?
I don’t know what the mechanism is. I mean, it’s like fines — just kind of like bounce off of them. I don’t know what would really hurt when it comes to liability. I mean, you see other countries that are trying to make platforms criminally liable. So they’re actually threatening platform employees with jail. That makes me pretty uncomfortable particularly because we’ve seen authoritarian regimes in India and Russia use it essentially to suppress criticism of the state. So I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for you.
All right. Let me ask you another question — what’s going to sway Zuckerberg himself? He obviously has doubled down on arrogance. Could see it was dripping off of him. Is it the S.E.C.? Is it the employee uprising? He seems to be like in a screw this mode. That’s all I could feel off of the whole thing.
I think something — for anyone to be humbled, something really tough has to happen, right? It still seems just as likely to me that Facebook doesn’t build the Metaverse but that Roblox does or Niantic does or some company that hasn’t been founded yet. On your first day at Facebook, they hand you this book that’s like, if we don’t invent the future of Facebook, somebody else will do it and destroy us. That’s how deeply the paranoia is baked into that company. But also, they’re totally right, right?
So I just sort of think it’s that more than anything else. You can imagine us having a similar conversation about Microsoft in 1998. What’s going to stop them? It’s like, well, it probably would have been hard to guess everything that came next. But the ultimate answer was just like the market stop them.
Yeah, eventually. Well, that monopoly case did slow them down quite a bid.
Yes, exactly. The government intervention and the market stopped them.
So one of the things I think is these employees things. I think it’s the whistleblowers. Do you think change is going to happen from the bottom up? They’ve tried NDAs, there’s all these companies — whether it’s Pinterest, Facebook, et cetera. Employees don’t seem to be want to be kept in line anywhere, but particularly at these tech companies.
I think that the sort of growth of employee organizing has been one of the most fascinating and important stories in tech generally over the past two or three years. And I think we will see more of it. A bunch of people who have left Facebook have now started this thing called the Integrity Institute where they’re going to sort of be like an outside watchdog. And then, of course, there’s all this internal organizing that you see on Facebook and everywhere else around all sorts of issues. So I would keep an eye on that. That’s a dynamic that Zuckerberg hasn’t had to deal with before now.
Right. Won’t they manifest the exact same problems? It’s like, we’re moving on to something else because this is a shit hole, and we’re moving somewhere else. So what are you worried about? Because they have talked about the need. They’re doing it safer this time, which, of course, suggests they didn’t do it safe last time. So what do you what are you most worried about in this Metaverse with Facebook?
I worry about exactly what you would imagine which is they did not solve these problems in the 2-D web. So what makes us think that they’re going to solve them in the three web. Particularly, if they take that same growth at all costs, ruthless approach to the business, then I think all of these things are sort of much more likely to happen. And also keep in mind — if you really want to sort of Zoom out to the far future where you are in these virtual spaces, there’s a lot more content to moderate.
Imagine we’re moving through a space and I don’t know — I bump into your avatar, and you accuse me of harassing you. All of this stuff gets super, super, super complicated. And I think that looking at Facebook’s track record, it’s fair to be pessimistic that they’re going to lead the way in solving that.
And they want engagement. And it’s not going to be through playing cards, Mark. People are going to be doing awful things. And not that immersive worlds aren’t coming, not that they could be really cool. They could be really cool.
One of the things that I just run up against all the time is I don’t have a good moral mechanism for weighing the harms versus the benefits here. If people have ideas, I would love some help. But I think in practice, people just say, Facebook makes me feel bad and to hell with it. And I’m sympathetic to that. I think that’s a totally rational response to have. But I think as a reporter covering the company, it would make my journalism worse if that was the response that I took to it.
See, I always look at just the fact like they have they make all the money, right? So if they want to do that, they should have all the responsibility in that way. And I think they don’t think enough. And I do think a person that’s unfavorable and not accountable with this much power always is a problem, no matter who it is.
To me, that’s exactly it. Somebody with that much power who isn’t accountable to even his own board, I think, should just make us nervous.
Nervous. Are you nervous, Casey? But you’re going to keep covering it, right?
I’m going to keep covering it. I mean, it’s one of the great stories of our time. It’s hugely consequential. All of the problems are hard. And I like thinking about them and reporting about them.
Agree. Agree. Thank you, Casey.
“Sway” is a production of The New York Times opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe, Elisa Gutierrez, and Wyatt Orme. Edited by Nayeema Raza, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Kristin Lin. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Mahima Chablani.
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