Tuesday, 6 Dec 2022

The Facebook Movie Told Us What We Needed to Know About Mark Zuckerberg

Everything we needed to know about Facebook was right in front of our faces, on the big screen, in 2010.

Come with me on this journey back in time, to the AMC Mountainside 10, on Route 22 in New Jersey, where I first saw “The Social Network.”

At the time, I was rooting for the young Mark Zuckerberg to get the better of the people trying to hold him back. He was an unusual movie protagonist, introverted and inconsiderate, but wasn’t it time for the geeks to take the power from the old guard? For the underdogs to beat the establishment?

When I streamed the movie the other day, I found my sympathies had shifted. Eight years (and many apology tours) later, “The Social Network” takes on a whole new meaning.

Watch it again and you’ll be reminded that Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t start out by describing his creation with lofty phrases characterizing it as “a social mission to make the world more open and connected,” which is the way he often refers to it now.

His journey to moguldom began ignobly, with Facemash.com, a meanspirited site that encouraged his fellow male students at Harvard College to rate women on campus by their looks.

The movie shows him building that Facebook precursor by hacking into Harvard web pages to gain access to the women’s identification photos. Harvard calls his behavior a “violation of individual privacy,” and hauls Mr. Zuckerberg before its administrative board. Mark deactivates his site and apologizes.

Every movie needs foils, and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the director David Fincher found theirs in a pair of well-heeled alpha males, the Winklevoss twins.

But now, the Winklevii don’t seem quite so bad. Weren’t they, after all, the first of many to be run over by Mr. Zuckerberg’s ambitions?

Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Fincher took a few liberties with the facts. But “The Social Network” was based on real events, many of them chronicled in “The Accidental Billionaires,” a 2009 book by the journalist Ben Mezrich. And the film’s portrayal of the budding tech magnate as someone more interested in growing his creation than in who might be hurt by it has stood the test of time.

Watching this origin story unfold from stadium seating eight years ago, I thought I was seeing a series of hard lessons learned as a callow 19-year-old came of age. Streaming it in 2018, I saw something else: the beginning of a pattern that has become all too familiar.

It goes like this. Something bad happens of increasingly severe consequence on Facebook (say, Russian election meddling in the United States, or the incitement of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar). After it is called out, Mr. Zuckerberg or another company official vows to do better. And when the heat is off, the cycle begins anew.

The pattern repeated last week when a meticulously reported New York Times investigation revealed Facebook’s bare-knuckled efforts to deflect blame and undermine critics as it came under scrutiny for enabling the spread of misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Facebook, which had no comment on Sunday, has responded defensively.

“The reality of running a company of more than 10,000 people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said on Thursday, “is that you’re not going to know everything that’s going on.”

It was a baffling explanation for anyone who took him and his deputy, Sheryl Sandberg, at face value when they swore, not long ago, that they would work openly to assert more control over the platform to stop misinformation campaigns, privacy breaches and incitements to violence.

Nothing was more at variance with their promises of transparency than The Times’s revelation that the company had hired Definers Public Affairs, whose founders are known in Republican circles as lords of the so-called “dark arts” of political opposition research.

As part of its work for Facebook, the firm circulated tip sheets suggesting that the liberal political donor George Soros — a common figure in anti-Semitic tropes — was behind a coalition of groups criticizing Facebook under the “Freedom from Facebook” umbrella.

News of that underground publicity campaign came after Facebook was revealed to be among the social media sites used to spread false memes depicting Mr. Soros as the financier of the “migrant caravan” that President Trump called a threat to national security before the midterm elections. And that is among the tamer pieces of disinformation you’re likely to find about Mr. Soros on Facebook.

In his recent remarks, Mr. Zuckerberg told reporters that Facebook had gotten rid of Definers and that neither he nor Ms. Sandberg knew about its tactics. Yet he still felt it necessary to say that highlighting wealthy donors to Freedom From Facebook was a fair way to show it was “not a spontaneous, grass-roots movement”

Mr. Soros did not directly finance the anti-Facebook coalition. Though he has given to some of its member groups, it was not specifically to go after Facebook, according to his nonprofit organization, the Open Society Foundations. The Open Society also said on Friday that it declined a request to donate directly to Freedom from Facebook.

But so what if Mr. Soros — an open critic of Facebook — had contributed to the group? People from all political persuasions are expressing concern about Facebook’s growing power.

Mr. Soros and his colleagues saw at least one obvious reason to single him out. “They were trying to stir up animus and rally right-wing support for Facebook,” said Patrick Gaspard, the president of Open Society Foundations. “And the best way to do that is to lift up old tropes against George Soros.”

Mr. Zuckerberg would have been wise to pay attention to the Facebook-related initiatives Mr. Soros has supported over the years. All the way back in 2011, he financed research to track how Facebook was being used to spread the anti-immigrant, often white ethnocentric messages of far-right populism in Europe.

Mr. Soros was also an early institutional supporter of StopFake.org, which began in 2014 to highlight Russia’s effort to pump false information into Ukraine, as well as Facebook’s failure to combat it.

The outcry over Russia’s social-media-fueled propaganda war in Ukraine should have served as a warning. But it went unheeded here until late 2016.

Even then, Mr. Zuckerberg was publicly doubting the effects of the disinformation campaign taking place on his platform — as well as on Twitter and YouTube — a position he did not reverse until the following year.

His slowness to catch on came as no surprise to Eli Pariser, whose 2011 book, “The Filter Bubble,” made the case that social media was serving to worsen national polarization. For years, Mr. Zuckerberg held fast to the notion that social media was a force for good, only to acknowledge, in 2017, that it did indeed have the capacity to “fragment our shared sense of reality.”

Mr. Pariser attributed Mr. Zuckerberg’s failure to appreciate Facebook’s destructive capabilities to a hyperfocus on his rivals. “I just think the problems that Facebook was looking at in 2012 and 2014 were, ‘Hey, is Twitter going to eat our lunch? Is Snapchat going to eat our lunch?’” Mr. Pariser said.

In the final scene of “The Social Network,” a lawyer advises Mr. Zuckerberg to settle with the people who had accused him of steamrollering them — the Winklevii and his Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

I knew in 2010 that he would do just that as the camera showed him alone in an office to ponder it. But I had the reason wrong. It wasn’t about doing right by those he had trampled. It was about doing only what he had to do to keep moving on, unimpeded.

Before the credits roll, we see Mr. Zuckerberg refreshing his laptop screen again and again — a signal, in retrospect, that history would repeat itself.

Follow Jim Rutenberg on Twitter: @jimrutenberg.

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