Former Facebook exec says social network’s bad rap is undeserved

Facebook has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, with a growing number of groups—including advertisers—calling it out for fomenting hate and allowing for the easy dissemination of toxic content.

However, its former chief security officer used philosophy—namely Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous observation that “Hell is other people”—to debunk the notion that the social network is entirely to blame.

Speaking at Collision on Tuesday, privacy expert Alex Stamos (who left the company in 2018) said that some of the criticism of Facebook has been misguided, and overlooks the ways in which more than 1 billion people use—and sometimes abuse—the platform.

“This is the collective decisions of millions and millions of people who’ve been given a freedom they’ve never had before,” Stamos told the crowd on the first full day of the annual tech conference.

But Stamos’ interviewer, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher, literally called “bullshit” on his assertion. “What you’re essentially arguing is Facebook doesn’t kill people, people kill people,” she said.

Swisher argued that social media giants have “weaponized and amplified” misinformation to a degree never seen before their emergence. “It’s sort of like going from a gun that shoots six bullets to a semi-automatic machine gun,” she said.

Much of the pair’s 20-minute discussion focused on Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election through Facebook, although Stamos was quick to point out that prior political campaigns, most notably that of former U.S. president Barack Obama, also weaponized social media to secure victory.

“Whether it’s Russia using it or not, it’s just a bad thing,” he said. “I saw the Obama tech team do a big interview about how much data they were pulling from Facebook and how finely they were targeting the ads.”

The difference, he said, is that the mainstream media was generally satisfied with the outcome of that election. He expressed concern that the upcoming U.S. election would become a “battle of the billionaires,” with special interest groups led by U.S. power-brokers such as the Koch Brothers using the platform to spread misinformation and sway voters.

“My real feel is that 2020 is going to be the battle of the billionaires, of secret groups working for people lined up outside who are trying to manipulate [people] online. It’s very difficult to draw the line about what’s acceptable,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘We want to stop the Russians.’ It’s a lot harder to say ‘We want to stop some kind of super PAC that’s secretly manipulating people at scale.'”

Stamos also said there are “legitimate” antitrust arguments for breaking up Facebook—as well as Google and YouTube—but that such actions fail to address the fundamental issues posed by their considerable scope and influence. “You can’t solve climate change by breaking up ExxonMobil and making 10 ExxonMobils,” he said. “You have to address the underlying issues.”

The social network does require an “internal revolution” signalling that the company is embracing change, he said. He even suggested current Microsoft president Brad Smith as a possible successor to its increasingly embattled leader, Mark Zuckerberg, who he suggested should turn his attention to product building.

Stamos also said that the tech giants insistence on tying compensation to stock performance is problematic, putting profits ahead of societal needs. “Eighty something per cent of my compensation at Facebook was set by Wall Street,” he said. “This is a crazy world when a CEO comes to you and says ‘You’ve done a really poor job of making our products good for the world, I’m very upset with you; congratulations you got a raise because our stock went up.’

“What kind of mixed messages does it send to say ‘We’re pivoting as a company to care about long-term issues,’ yet most of your compensation is based on what happens right after the quarterly numbers are released.”

Stamos also accused Facebook of being overly reactionary, allowing media criticism—such as a series of blistering articles by The New York Times—to set its agenda.

“They make these content decisions based upon external pressure and trying to react to immediate issues; they don’t base it upon a kind of constitution around why does Facebook do certain things,” he said. “It would be better for the company to say ‘there are certain things we are not going to do, even if we get yelled at or mocked by The New York Times.” 

Chris Powell