The New York Times this afternoon reported on a lengthy, meandering internal memo by Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, better known as “Boz” both inside the company and out. Bosworth currently runs Facebook’s virtual reality efforts, but for years, including during the 2016 election, he ran Facebook’s targeted-ad product. In the memo, Bosworth states that while he is personally opposed to a Trump reelection in 2020, he does not think Facebook as a company should change how it operates to realize that goal. It is somehow a more candid memo than any other Facebook statement in recent memory but also contains a substantial amount of hedging.
Boz is no stranger to strong, declarative memos. In 2016, he wrote one proclaiming that “We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in.” The work was important even if it got people hurt, he wrote at the time.
His newest memo, posted on December 30, is a bit more contrite. While many media reports about Facebook are wrong, he writes without getting specific, he acknowledges, “The media has limited information to work with (by our own design!) … but there is almost always some critical issue that motivated them to write which we need to understand.”
His primary example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The outrage was correct, he admits, in that it revealed how poorly monitored and widely exploitable Facebook’s platform was. “That we shut it down in 2014 and never paid the piper on how bad it was makes this scrutiny justified in my opinion,” he writes. The distinction is that Cambridge Analytica ability to use “psychographic” models, and the ability to manipulate vast populations was highly overstated by the consulting firm — “snake oil salespeople,” in Boz’s terms.
Boz makes some good points. Plenty of people misunderstand Facebook, or mistakenly conceptualize its power. But Facebook is in a hell of its own making, operating in secrecy, obfuscating how it works, and merely feigning transparency much of the time.
Later in the memo, Boz acknowledges something that no other Facebook executive has ever admitted before.
So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.
(Mark Zuckerberg infamously described the idea of Facebook swaying an election as “pretty crazy” and has since regretted those comments.)
Much of Boz’s memo includes a lot of hand-waving. Trump just did better ads! People are always going to be polarized! Filter bubbles are natural! Facebook isn’t addictive; social media is “likely much less fatal than bacon.” Which is a far cry from Boz’s (and Zuckerberg’s) previous declarations that it’s actually good for the world.
Responding to the Times’ story, Bosworth wrote, “Overall I hoped this post would encourage my coworkers to continue to accept criticism with grace as we accept the responsibility we have overseeing our platform.”
But perhaps the best illustration of Boz attempting to have it both ways is contained in a Lord of the Rings analogy he makes to illustrate Facebook’s power.
I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial [sic] and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.
Facebook, in this case, is the ring. What Boz has failed to consider is, uh, what happens to the ring at the end of the story. As we all know, The Lord of the Rings ends with Frodo deciding to hold on to the ring and use it responsibly for the rest of his life. Just kidding, the ring is cast into a fiery pit and destroyed forever.