the facebook papers

‘The Problem Is Him’

Kara Swisher on Mark Zuckerberg’s crisis and ours.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Erin Scott/REUTERS
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Erin Scott/REUTERS

When Vietnam’s communist rulers gave Facebook an ultimatum to censor anti-government posts earlier this year or leave the country, Mark Zuckerberg personally made the call to appease them. It’s among the damning revelations about the company to emerge from whistleblowers in recent weeks, most of them contained in the so-called Facebook Papers. The trove shows how Facebook knowingly amplified anger and misinformation about the platform and the company’s engineers chillingly identified ways to manipulate the behavior of its 3.5 billion users, meaning about half the planet’s population may ultimately be swayed by the whims of one man.

No journalist may know Zuckerberg better than Kara Swisher. In 2010, she and the former Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg made him literally sweat over questions about user privacy. Since then, Swisher has spoken to Zuckerberg many times, including during an infamous interview in 2018, when he said Facebook should not take down posts denying the Holocaust. Intelligencer spoke to Swisher, who co-hosts New York Magazine’s Pivot podcast, about Zuckerberg as revealed in the Facebook Papers and the moment of crisis for the company he built.

The first time you met Zuckerberg, you guys took a walk together. 

Well, I met him in the office and then we took a walk together. That was a thing he did with reporters back then.

What was he like? 

He was very earnest, super-shy. I would say he had an awkward time talking. He wasn’t particularly good socially then, but he’s gotten better. You had to draw things out of him. He kept calling Facebook “a utility.” That was his thing at the time because Myspace was so much more interesting and he was quite disdainful of it. He thought — quite correctly — that they were a flash in the pan and that he was more of a utility and he would be more useful to people over time. He was correct.

You’ve previously said that one thing you admire about him is that he is a “learning organism.” But your mentor, Walt Mossberg, has said that he doesn’t think Zuckerberg has evolved at all.

Yes, we disagree on that. I think Mark has tried to learn. I just think he’s not up to the task, so it doesn’t really matter if he’s tried to learn. He’s bitten off more than he can chew. That’s one of the main problems — that what he needs to be is a nearly impossible job for anyone and he is particularly ill-suited given his lack of communication skills. He’s undereducated for the job he has because he’s not just a technologist; he’s a social engineer. And a very powerful one with no accountability. He’s like an emperor that he so admires; he was a fanboy of Augustus Caesar. That was his hero. But Augustus Caesar wasn’t really equipped to be emperor either, right? So much pain and suffering. Nobody can do what Mark is doing unless you have an ability to not worry about consequences.

How do you think he has learned?

Apparently, he has dinners. He reads a lot. He apparently calls famous people. One year, he’ll decide to learn everything he can about killing animals. It’s very earnest and poignant in a weird way, trying all kinds of different things to educate himself. He tried a podcast for a New York minute where he had discussions with smart people. He hasn’t posted in months and months. A lot of Silicon Valley people do that kind of bullshit. They style themselves as journalists or intellectuals, neither of which they are, but whatever. He’s tried all manner of things to try to educate himself. He wouldn’t say this, but I suspect he feels slightly insecure that he didn’t finish school.

Do you think his learning applies to the way he runs Facebook? 

Yes, he’s learning on the job, except it’s the world. You know what I mean? That’s the problem. In the case of making an app, that’s one thing. But in the case of dealing with significantly difficult social and political issues, honestly, do we want him making the decisions? I don’t know of almost anyone who can make those decisions. He’s just ill-equipped for the task ahead of him.

Another thing that Mossberg has said is he thinks Zuckerberg sets himself apart from other tech CEOs because he doesn’t have any principles and no red lines. 

I don’t think that’s quite right. If you listen to my 2018 interview with him, I’m like, “Well, how do you feel that something you created played a role in these killings in Myanmar?” And he said, “Well, I just want to get in there and fix it.” And I’m like, “Well, you caused it.” And he said, “Like any engineer, I want to fix it.” I’m like, Yeah, but you’re like the arsonist. You broke it. Don’t you want to know how you did it? He’s just not a small-talk person, but he’s not a big-talk person, either.

In the 2018 interview, he said that his philosophy about running a company was understanding what you’re willing to tolerate. Have you noticed any change in what he or Facebook tolerates? 

He doesn’t think like you and me. When they were debuting Facebook Live, I had a million questions about abuse. And they were like, “What are you talking about?” It was so typical. It wasn’t him, but it was his people — people who were like him who just reflect him. They were like, “You’re such a bummer, Kara.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m a bummer, I guess, but I think someone’s going to kill someone on this thing and broadcast it.” And it didn’t take long before there was a mass murder on it. The idea of consequences seems to escape them almost entirely because most of them have never had an unsafe day in their lives. Truly. Why would he? He lived in a very, very expensive suburb of New York. He was treated like a prince by his parents. He went to Harvard. What’s his difficulty? What’s his challenge? I’d like to know.

What did you come away from the 2018 interview thinking? 

I don’t think he was very polished. He seems to get very nervous around me, and so he goes back to his old behaviors, which is kind of odd and funny. I don’t know what happened there, but he was arguing with me about Alex Jones and then he shifted it himself to Holocaust deniers. I was like, Oh, that’s not going to go well for you, sir. I just let him do it. That shows you what a clod he was from a PR perspective. To me, “Never bring up Holocaust deniers” would be a good rule. Let’s call attention to terrible things about your platform! I don’t think he was expecting the fallout from that because the questions were really fair. He had to issue an apology and then two years later he threw Holocaust deniers off the platform. Anyway, he hasn’t talked to me since that interview.

He has said he appreciates the press for shining a spotlight on issues at Facebook. Do you think that appreciation is genuine?

That’s a lie. He doesn’t appreciate it at all. The people around him, you see them all tweet at us. That’s him tweeting at us. They sit around like little courtiers and want to please him. You have Adam Mosseri, who is one of the worst tweeters of all time, trying to best reporters. Okay, go for it, sir.

What do you think motivates him?

I’ve been on phone calls with him late at night, when he used to talk to me. He’d go on and on about building meaningful communities, and I’d say, “Well, some people aren’t good. Some people are bad!” He’s like, “We’re going to correct it by algorithms and people pushing community.” He always had a kind of positive belief in humanity, which was nowhere in evidence on his platform.

He runs a big city that he thinks is running fine, but nobody has water or police or anything else. I don’t think the influence of Marc Andreessen or Peter Thiel has been good for him. Over the years, he seems to have moved into their orbit and the people who were more sensible have left the company. That should be a big red flag.

Even Sheryl Sandberg?

She’s not going to say anything. He was really lovely to her after her husband died, and I think she felt a debt of gratitude to him. That would be my guess as to why she didn’t push him around a little bit. But he got to the point where he got so confident he didn’t want to be pushed around. He doesn’t welcome criticism anymore.

How many beatings can he take before he really distances himself from Facebook?

That’s what he’s going to do. I think he’s going to create an Über-company like they did at Google and put him above it. Just like Larry Page, who disappeared into the ether. In Larry’s case, he doesn’t like talking to people and he never did, so there was no crisis or anything else to cause that to happen. In Mark’s case, it’s because he’s the personification of that company. The problem is him. The same thing happened to Bill Gates during the Microsoft trial. Gates became the problem and then he had that disastrous testimony. They had to move him away from the spotlight, but he still ran the place. So they can hire a CEO of Facebook and make it a division of the conglomerate and then you never see the head of the conglomerate; you see the head of Facebook, who will be Andrew Bosworth or Chris Cox. Not Sheryl Sandberg; she’s just too close to Mark.

But he doesn’t need to do that because he has complete control. So who would he be trying to please? 

This is going to keep happening over and over. Now the employees are restless. There’s a rebellion going on within that company. He’s lost a lot of the employees, and that’s not good.

The first time you met, he said something like, “I hear you think I’m an asshole,” right?

Yes, he did. That’s the beginning of my new book.

What was your answer? 

“I’ve never met you, so I don’t know if you’re an asshole or not, but we’ll find out soon enough.”

It’s been more than a decade, so what’s the verdict? 

He’s not an asshole, and he’s never been an asshole. That’s not the problem here. It’s easy when they’re assholes. When it’s a Travis Kalanick? Simple, just flush the guy down the toilet. When it’s Mark, it’s harder. He’s an important technologist. But people like Steve Jobs and others really disdained what Mark was doing. He’s willing to take people’s private information and tell you he knows what’s best. But he doesn’t know what’s best, and he never did. It’s so easy to make him evil. I don’t think he’s evil. That’s sort of an easy way out of it. There’s a really famous W. H. Auden quote. “Evil is unspectacular and always human.” Mark is very human. That’s the problem.

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