×

On Russian meddling, Mark Zuckerberg follows a familiar playbook

Source: Facebook

I knew the big Mark Zuckerberg speech was coming. It always does.

Scandals involving Facebook tend to follow a well-worn pattern: Throughout the social network's short history, when the company has felt pummeled by users or lawmakers or shareholders over one of the dozens of controversies that have plagued its rise, there comes a moment when the clamor reaches a fever pitch. You begin to wonder why on earth they aren't doing more. Can't they see how deep they are in it?

Just then, Mr. Zuckerberg will issue a blog post, and these days, a live video, too — as he did on Thursday, in a short address on Facebook's role in Russia's interference of last year's presidential election.

To a cynic, this week's message, like others Mr. Zuckerberg has issued, might sound like puffery. After all, he and his top lieutenants — especially Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer — are as meticulous in stewarding their own image as they are in managing a sprawling multibillion-dollar corporation.

Mr. Zuckerberg, in particular, has come to see his own role in guiding Facebook's community, and the trust the community places in him, as crucial to the fate of the corporation. So when the heat from American lawmakers regarding ads placed by Russian trolls on Facebook began to rise, Mr. Zuckerberg had no option to ignore it; he had to say something.

But these messages aren't just show. Inside Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg's exhortations carry the weight of God. That's why the detailed plan he offered to address election meddling is a very big deal.

Like all tech leaders, Mr. Zuckerberg is often hailed as a visionary, but his primary talent is as a reactor. His true skill is not in seeing ahead, but in looking back and fixing where Facebook has failed. And what's noteworthy is that when he marshals Facebook's considerable resources to address a problem, Mr. Zuckerberg has a track record of making things right.

I am not asking you to blindly accept that Facebook will be able to completely address the role it plays in modern propaganda wars. On Russian meddling specifically, it took Facebook more than 10 months after the election to reveal that Russian trolls had bought ads through Facebook, and then it further dragged its feet on deciding to make those ads available to Congress.

What's more, Mr. Zuckerberg's initial reaction to the question of Facebook's role in the election was marked by a reflexive defensiveness.

"Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea," he said at a tech conference days after last year's presidential election. Since then, he has slowly — too slowly — come around to the idea that social media may not be the force for good in the world that he and other optimists always promised.

But it is worth noting that this sort of thing has happened before. Throughout Facebook's history, on questions of privacy and advertising and business strategy, he has repeatedly fallen behind, then issued blog posts begging for another chance to put things right.

Often these messages conform to a template that he has honed over the years. He will usually begin with a note of reflection, sometimes issuing an outright apology. Often, he will underline Facebook's central tenet of transparency and openness: "Calm down. Breathe. We hear you," he wrote in 2006, in one of the earliest of these addresses (people were very upset that Facebook had begun News Feed; what innocent times).

Next, he will offer a specific plan for the future, often soliciting feedback from users. And he tends to end on a ringing plea for another chance, as he did this week: "It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections," he said in his address on Thursday. "But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion."

This promise reminded me of a very different but equally daunting problem that Facebook faced five years ago. It had just floated its stock on the public markets, and things were not looking good. For the first time in its blessed rise, experts were questioning the social network's future.

Facebook was born as a website on desktop browsers, but the world was moving to mobile phones — and there was little evidence that Facebook had the technical or cultural expertise to move along with them. Mr. Zuckerberg has admitted that he was late to notice the problem; as late as 2012, the company had fewer than 20 people on its mobile team.

Then, finally, after much prodding by investors, Mr. Zuckerberg came around. He tore up the company's old mobile strategy and brought in new leadership to manage a new one. Getting Facebook's mobile apps working perfectly became the company's top priority — not just for a handful of teams, but for everyone who worked at Facebook, from Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg on down.

"Mobile is everyone's job," Mr. Zuckerberg told the company.

It was a do-or-die moment — and Facebook did. At first slowly and then quicker than anyone might have guessed, more people began to use Facebook on their phones — which drove more advertisers to place ads on Facebook's mobile apps. Soon, Facebook's mobile growth eclipsed that of every other social app, and it became indomitable. Today, of the more than two billion people who use Facebook every month, most use it on their phones — and nearly 90 percent of Facebook's advertising revenue comes from mobile devices.

The latest series of scandals engulfing Facebook has not affected its business, which under Ms. Sandberg's leadership remains brisk. But they present no less of an existential problem.

Facebook's main asset is us, its users; how we users and lawmakers perceive Facebook's effect on our lives — and on our democracies and national security — is a crucial factor in its future. In addition to possible regulatory oversight of its advertising engine, there's a more straightforward worry that we will all become wary of the company's might — and will think twice about letting it get ever deeper into our lives, as it is wont to do.

A friend and mentor who knows Mr. Zuckerberg well told me recently that his greatest skill is his ability to learn from his mistakes. He was late to appreciate how the world's most-used social service might be used for ill. Now that he finally seems to understand the problem, there may be hope that he can do something about it.

Now watch: People are waking up to the fact that Facebook is a monopoly: David Dietze