MARK’S LOS­ING ACE

Sunday Herald Sun - - News -

MARK Zucker­berg isn’t the first per­son in hu­man his­tory to draw in­spi­ra­tion from Au­gus­tus Cae­sar, the founder of the Ro­man Em­pire. But he’s one of a very few for whom the les­sons of Au­gus­tus’s reign have a concrete ur­gency.

Both men, af­ter all, built in­ter­na­tional em­pires be­fore the age of 33.

“Ba­si­cally, through a re­ally harsh ap­proach, he es­tab­lished 200 years of world peace,” Zucker­berg told a re­porter ear­lier this year. “What are the trade-offs in that?”

Au­gus­tus, Zucker­berg ex­plained, “had to do cer­tain things” to en­sure the sta­bil­ity of his em­pire. So too, ap­par­ently, does Face­book.

A 6000-word re­port pub­lished in the New York Times re­cently dis­closed in hu­mil­i­at­ing de­tail the lengths to which Face­book has gone to pro­tect its dom­i­nance and at­tack its crit­ics.

As var­i­ous in­ter­lock­ing crises con­cern­ing hate speech, mis­in­for­ma­tion, and data pri­vacy widened, top ex­ec­u­tives ig­nored, and then kept se­cret, ev­i­dence that the plat­form had be­come a vec­tor for mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns by gov­ern­ment-backed Rus­sian trolls.

The com­pany mounted a shock­ingly ag­gres­sive lob­by­ing and pub­lic-re­la­tions cam­paign, which in­cluded cre­at­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing proFace­book blog posts that were func­tion­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able from the “co-or­di­nated in­au­then­tic con­tent” (that is, fake news) Face­book had pledged to elim­i­nate from its plat­form.

In one par­tic­u­larly galling ex­am­ple, the com­pany hired a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy that spread a con­spir­acy the­ory ac­cus­ing the pow­er­ful Hun­gar­ian-Amer­i­can fi­nancier and phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros of fund­ing anti-Face­book protests.

Zucker­berg, it seems, had taken the “re­ally harsh ap­proach” to es­tab­lish­ing dig­i­tal hege­mony.

Au­gus­tus, at least, was a charis­matic leader and con­fi­dent ruler. No one at Face­book comes across in the Times piece as a sim­i­larly bold vi­sion­ary.

Not Joel Ka­plan, Face­book’s top lob­by­ist, who en­cour­aged the com­pany to sup­press and hold back find­ings of Rus­sian in­flu­ence cam­paigns for fear of alien­at­ing Repub­li­cans. Not (Sen­a­tor) Chuck Schumer, who con­fronted one of the Sen­ate’s top Face­book crit­ics and told him to fig­ure out how to work with the com­pany. (Schumer’s daugh­ter works for Face­book.) Not Sh­eryl Sand­berg, the adult-in-the-room chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer who presided over the en­tire sus­pi­cious and hos­tile cri­sis re­sponse. And cer­tainly not Zucker­berg, who seems to have been con­sis­tently ab­sent —— or plainly un­in­ter­ested — dur­ing key meet­ings about Face­book’s han­dling of hate speech and mis­in­for­ma­tion.

It’s hard to be a his­tor­i­cal vi­sion­ary hailed for bro­ker­ing sta­bil­ity by mak­ing morally com­plex de­ci­sions if you can’t even be both­ered to show up to the morally com­plex de­ci­sions meet­ings.

De­mands for the CEO to ab­di­cate, or to at least step down from his role as chair­man of the board, have in­creased, but Zucker­berg — who con­trols 60 per cent of Face­book’s vot­ing shares — is no more likely to re­sign than Au­gus­tus would have been.

As the Wall Street Jour­nal re­ports, he told com­pany ex­ec­u­tives ear­lier this year that Face­book is at war.

The trou­ble is that the war may have al­ready been lost. Be­set by stag­nant growth, low em­ployee morale, plum­met­ing stock, pub­lic out­rage, and a bi­par­ti­san group of en­e­mies in gov­ern­ment, the old Face­book, the ever-ex­pand­ing, gov­ern­ment-ig­nor­ing, world­con­quer­ing com­pany of only a year or two ago, is gone.

Its own in­ter­nal sur­veys bear this out: Face­book was once leg­endary for the cultish ded­i­ca­tion of its em­ploy­ees — re­port­ing on the com­pany was nearly im­pos­si­ble be­cause work­ers re­fused to leak — but em­ployee con­fi­dence in Face­book’s fu­ture, as judged by in­ter­nal sur­veys re­ported on by the Jour­nal, is down 32 per­cent­age points over the past year, to 52 per cent.

Around the same num­ber of Face­book em­ploy­ees think the com­pany is mak­ing the world a bet­ter place, down 19 points from this time last year, and em­ploy­ees re­port that they plan to leave Face­book for new jobs ear­lier than they had in the past.

Scarier even for Face­book is the pos­si­bil­ity, for which there is some anec­do­tal ev­i­dence, that it’s no longer a sought-af­ter em­ployer for top com­puter-science and en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ates.

There’s al­ready am­ple ev­i­dence that Face­book is los­ing its hold on users. In the mar­kets where Face­book is most prof­itable, its user base is ei­ther stag­nant, as in North Amer­ica, or ac­tu­ally shrink­ing, as in Europe. The com­pany might be able to re­as­sure it­self that In­sta­gram — which it wholly owns — is still ex­pand­ing im­pres­sively, but the suc­cess of In­sta­gram hasn’t stopped Face­book from get­ting pun­ished on the stock mar­ket.

Face­book blames its shrink­ing Euro­pean-user fig­ures not on its fal­ter­ing pub­lic im­age but on the Euro­pean Union’s ag­gres­sive new pri­vacy law. But this raises a more trou­bling pos­si­bil­ity for Face­book: that its con­tin­ued suc­cess is de­pen­dent on a soft reg­u­la­tory touch it can no longer ex­pect from gov­ern­ments.

What makes the Times rev­e­la­tions par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous to Zucker­berg’s em­pire is that they ar­rive at a mo­ment when there is ac­tu­ally the po­lit­i­cal will to chal­lenge its dom­i­nance.

The fall of Face­book may not come af­ter a long de­cline but through out­side ac­tion — slapped with ma­jor fines and ex­pen­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tions, chas­tened and dis­em­pow­ered by a new reg­u­la­tory regime.

“Face­book can­not be trusted to reg­u­late it­self,” Rhode Is­land rep­re­sen­ta­tive David Ci­cilline — who will likely run the House ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee on anti-trust is­sues — tweeted re­cently.

In the Sen­ate, scep­ti­cism re­gard­ing tech gi­ants is enough of a bi­par­ti­san is­sue that there ap­pears to be room for an agree­ment on data pro­tec­tion and user pri­vacy.

“I’m not look­ing to reg­u­late (Zucker­berg) half to death,” Repub­li­can sen­a­tor John Kennedy said ear­lier this year, “but I can tell you this: The is­sue isn’t go­ing away.”

It’s true that some Repub­li­can crit­ics seem less con­cerned about Face­book’s over­whelm­ing power than about the spu­ri­ous claims of con­ser­va­tives that their views are be­ing sup­pressed on the plat­form, but there is gen­uine Repub­li­can in­ter­est in rein­ing in Face­book.

Ac­tion against big tech com­pa­nies is a beloved topic of Steve Ban­non and his wing of the GOP, and Don­ald Trump him­self, of course, has no par­tic­u­lar af­fec­tion for the com­pany. Trump’s Depart­ment of Jus­tice, in fact, might rep­re­sent Face­book’s big­gest threat. The head of the An­titrust Di­vi­sion, Makan Del­rahim, has been singing the praises of the fa­mous DOJ Mi­crosoft an­titrust law­suit.

As Tim Wu, a for­mer FTC ad­viser and the au­thor of The Curse of Big­ness: An­titrust in the Gilded Age, puts it, “Who­ever leads the case to break up Face­book will have the po­lit­i­cal winds and the pub­lic at his back”.

A new Ax­ios poll sup­ports this assess­ment. Amer­i­cans have re­versed their opin­ions about so­cial me­dia over the past year, and a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum now be­lieve that so­cial me­dia hurts democ­racy and that the Gov­ern­ment isn’t do­ing enough to reg­u­late it.

It’s the pub­lic out­rage that should be most wor­ry­ing to Face­book. Other tech gi­ants have man­aged to es­cape the op­pro­brium di­rected at Face­book be­cause they have ob­vi­ously use­ful ser­vices. Ama­zon de­liv­ers things to your house. Google helps you find things on­line. Ap­ple sells ac­tual ob­jects. Face­book … helps you get into fights? De­liv­ers your old class­mates’ po­lit­i­cal opin­ions to your brain?

Ama­zon is still so un­be­liev­ably con­ve­nient that the thought of quit­ting it ex­hausts me. But I logged out of Face­book more than a year ago and have logged back in fewer than a dozen times since.

Check­ing Face­book had been a daily habit, but it also hadn’t im­proved my life or made it­self nec­es­sary.

Not many Ro­man plebes would have said that about the Pax Ro­mana. Some em­pires fall be­cause they’re in­vaded from the out­side or rot from within.

Zucker­berg’s could be the first in his­tory to col­lapse sim­ply be­cause its cit­i­zens logged out. ©2018 NEW YORK ME­DIA LLC. FIRST PUB­LISHED IN NEW YORK MAG­A­ZINE.

Mark Zucker­berg (main); Sh­eryl Sand­berg (in­set below); and (bot­tom right) a demon­stra­tor protests Zucker­berg’s re­fusal to give ev­i­dence to a UK in­ves­ti­ga­tion into fake news.

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