Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once set out a bit of digital-world wisdom that became his company’s informal motto: “Move fast and break things.”
After the past week’s developments, the 34-year-old should declare mission accomplished - and find something else to do for the next few decades.
Because he’s shown that he’s incapable of leading the broken behemoth that is Facebook.
Leaders - capable leaders - don’t do what Zuckerberg has done in the face of disaster that they themselves have presided over.
They don’t hide and deny.
They don’t blame-shift.
And they don’t insist on speaking in the worst kind of fuzzy corporate cliches.
Two stunning pieces of journalism show the scope of the problem, and how out of his depth Facebook’s chairman and CEO is.
The first, a major investigation by the New York Times, revealed that, under fire for allowing misinformation to spread on its platform, Facebook hired an opposition-research company to plant false stories in the conservative blogosphere. Some, for example, suggested that George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, was bankrolling anti-Facebook protestors. To put it more bluntly, Facebook enabled a smear campaign against its critics.
As Max Read pithily observed in New York magazine: “Fake news isn’t just a problem for Facebook. It’s also a solution!”
The second, by the feature writer Eli Saslow in The Washington Post, focused on a particular blogger who makes a living inventing viral lies that spread - and are believed - on a Facebook page called “America’s Last Line of Defense.”
Together, these stories tell us once again what we already knew: That Facebook is a rudderless ship sailing toward the apocalypse - and we’re all along for the ride.
Bad and telling as they are, the latest developments are only more of the same.
This is the same company - with the same leadership - that denied the now-established truth that misinformation deeply infected the 2016 presidential campaign. (“A pretty crazy idea,” was Zuckerberg’s feint at the time.)
“The same people are leading that company that have always led that company,” observed Sheera Frankel, one of the Times reporters, in an interview with Kara Swisher on MSNBC Sunday night.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, the latest insane revelations were completely predictable.
Some Facebook investors are calling - again, and more vehemently - for a change at the top. If Zuckerberg is to stay at the helm, they at least want him to give up his dual role as CEO and chairman. Step down as chairman and appoint an independent director to oversee the board.
“A company with Facebook’s massive reach and influence requires robust oversight and that can only be achieved through an independent chair who is empowered to provide critical checks on company leadership,” said one of these investors, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, according to Business Insider.
Zuckerberg controls 60 percent of the company and can do pretty much whatever he wants. And he doesn’t like that idea.
But it’s the right one. At the very least, it’s a move in a sensible direction. If there was ever a company that needed vigorous checks and balances, it’s this one.
Facebook is a $40 billion global giant with almost unimaginable power. It now has 2 billion users worldwide.
And its leadership - perhaps understandably - has shown itself simply not up to the task of dealing with the explosion of growth since its founding in 2004 in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room.
Over the past few days Zuckerberg seems to be reaching new lows, threatening to fire employees who speak to the news media. Considering the smarmy lip service that Facebook pays to “transparency,” that’s especially appalling.
He also, according to Wall Street Journal reporting, blamed his second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last spring. (The British research firm gained access to the sensitive data of millions of Facebook users.)
Although Zuckerberg often says the right words (“I started this place, I run it. I’m responsible for what happened here”), his behind-the-scenes behavior tells another story: The buck never seems to stop with Zuckerberg, despite his immense and closely held power.
There is no good solution here. Government regulation of social-media platforms has dire implications for free speech. And the notion that Facebook is going to somehow fix itself has been proven wrong time and time again.
But the status quo is unacceptable - and dangerous.
If Zuckerberg really wants to be “responsible for what happened here,” he’ll step aside as chairman and encourage some stringent internal oversight. And, as part of that, true transparency to the public and the press.
Facebook, whether it wants to admit it or not, is in serious crisis.
And its power is such that the crisis extends to everyone it touches - and beyond.