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In earnings call, Zuckerberg promises to target adversaries: Does he mean Russian trolls or US legislators?

By Kevin Kelleher , written on November 2, 2017

From The Politics Desk

2017 has had so many weird, telling moments, this one barely registers: One of the most successful companies in the world reported blowout earnings at the same time it testified before Congress to defend its business practices.

Guess which one the CEO showed up for?

“We're serious about preventing abuse on our platforms,” Mark Zuckerberg said forcefully in his statement to Congress – sorry, I meant to investors. “Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits."

Right, okay. But if you're really serious about putting security over securities, maybe you can step outside of a manicured press release and defend yourself before the very institution you helped to weaken over the past year? In that time, Facebook's profit grew 79%, thanks to the same world-dominating ad machine that Zuckerberg is now vowing to repair.

If you listen to the earnings call, you can see why scheduling yesterday's calendar was such an easy task for Zuckerberg. Few analysts went near the awkward topic of Russian trolls. One broached it, but only to ask, rather creepily, if a more secure Facebook would mean less engagement and, you know, profits.

Zuckerberg answered, somewhat testily, that “people do not want false news or hate speech or bullying or any of the bad content that we're talking about.” After all, Facebook is about bringing people together and all that. In the call Zuckerberg also pouted that he's “upset” that what “the Russians... did is wrong,” and that Facebook would bring “the same intensity to these security issues that we've brought to any adversary.” (Hey, Snap, how does it feel to be lumped together with Putin's trolls?)

Let's stay for a moment with Facebook's mantra of bringing the world together. It gets at something at the core of Facebook's existential crisis. In Zuckerberg's letter to IPO investors five years ago, he admits, in an aw-shucks manner that felt hamfisted back then, that its mission “to strengthen how people relate to each other... sounds big.” That claim now has the tinge of the tragic about it.

Even more tragic was Zuckerberg's “hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.” Facebook gets a solid 10 on that life goal, but only if you put a minus sign before it.

Where Facebook succeeded most was exactly where Zuckerberg underpromised. “Simply put,” he wrote, “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” Oh, really? Facebook has made more than $30 billion in profit in the last five years, $12 billion of which has come this year. As of last quarter, it turned fully half of its revenue into operating profits. The stock is up nearly fivefold since the IPO. If this company doesn't exist to make money, which one does?

Facebook is so good at making money it's hard to imagine anything else it does that comes close. If Facebook vanished overnight, most of us would either not notice or transition to some rival Facebook hasn't managed to kill. A survey by the Verge found that Facebook was less liked than Google, Microsoft, and Amazon (Amazon!) and would be less missed less if it disappeared. Facebook may be the most profitable useless company Silicon Valley ever spawned.

Zuckerberg's letter went on to sermonize about The Hacker Way, an ideal held so closely at Facebook that it named its headquarters after it. Which raises another uncomfortable question for Zuckerberg: If the software platform your team built is so brutally owned by adversaries intent on unravelling your stated mission, it might be time to turn ownership of your Hacker Way offices to the Russian embassy.

The common thread between Facebook's victory lap on Wall Street and its walk of shame on Capitol Hill is this: Our ads work as hard as demons to serve your business. Sheryl Sandberg ran through some informative case studies in which advertisers used Facebook ad tools to, um, … oh I'm sorry. I seem to have drifted off there. Sandberg waves around these case studies the way a hypnotist swings a pendulum. They can be seductively interesting at first, but upon repetition induce a kind of narcolepsy. Do not listen to Facebook earnings calls while operating heavy machinery.

While Sandberg and Zuckerberg were making baby layups on Hacker Way, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch was getting pummeled with the kinds of punches that leave marks for life. Stretch (not the best name for a lawyer you want to send before Congressional committee) didn't help Facebook much, even as he mostly held to the party line. Stretch acknowledged that Russian ads were used with great effectiveness, that they were intended to drive users to non-paid content on Russian pages, and that some ads mirrored those of the Trump campaign.

This is a far cry from the original Facebook. A decade ago, Facebook solved a real problem for many of us. It helped us connect with family and friends, especially those far-flung connections we'd otherwise lose touch with. That value had faded enough by the time of Facebook's IPO that Zuckerberg's letter rang just a little false. Then Facebook cracked mobile ads while serving small businesses with an ad product that helped them compete with big companies, thanks to a granularity of user data that had never been available before, but which Facebook shared in a democratic way to advertisers small and large alike.

The democracy that Facebook created among advertisers, it failed to extend to users. The sheep who just wanted to keep up with friends old and new stood no chance against the wolves that its ad machine ushered in. The hearings this week made evident a divide between the data Facebook tracks on users and that it has on advertisers. Asked if it can know who its advertisers are, Stretch responded, “Of course, the answer is no.” That opened him up to attacks that Facebook can target ads with great precision to users but can't spot Russian influence. “My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better,” one Senator admonished.

In this sense, Facebook has an uneasy parallel with Equifax. Both considered personal data to be their product and their clients to be anyone willing to will pay for that data. Both were hacked. Equifax had its data stolen outright. Facebook had its data manipulated into something it failed to think thought through. It recalls the way that an earlier Zuckerberg project, Facemash, scraped the profiles of female students so Harvard men could subjugate them to their desires.

In some ways, Facemash reveals the blueprint Zuckerberg used at Facebook to bring the world closer together. The predators, anonymous, parse the data of the exposed prey. The coders allowing this injustice remain the most hidden of all. Replace Facemash with Facebook, female students with US voters and Harvard men with Russian trolls and you have a pattern has dogged Zuckerberg from his college years to today. And all the while, the engineer of this mischief has pretended he has no idea why things went so wrong.

“When we set our minds to something, we're going to do it,” Zuckerberg told investors. That comment left me wondering which adversary he perceives as a greater threat right now: Russian trolls or US legislators. Facebook has already spent $8.4 million on a team of 36 federal lobbyists. People worry about banks being too big to fail. Facebook has become so integral to our daily lives that, no matter how much it fails us, it's too big to fuck itself over.