tv After Words Steven Levy Facebook CSPAN July 20, 2020 12:01am-12:53am EDT
>>cspan: welcome steve the first time he may have sat together we are both working at newsweek in the company canteen. as you know i am a big fan of yours i was a huge fan of your first book on google and now to come back at this particular moment and talk about facebook could not be more timely. i will just start off we have a lot of places to go with this but i want to start with
something timely literally this morning we heard about the hacking of twitter trump has gone to facebook to get his message out. facebook has had a lot of criticism over the years i wrote a column recently on why mark zuckerberg has not fact check the president. why it is this relationship between facebook and the white house and free speech? i will throw a big question to launch off. >> thank you for doing this. it's good to connect with you again. like a lot of things you can't just pull out one problem of facebook from its dna and origins and in the case of
trum trump, obviously he was not a factor in the early days in the dorm room but by the time the trump campaign got rolling in 2015, this became an issue for facebook with the messy way it dealt with controversial content and the same way in 2015 when trump posted stuff that was anti- muslim and it actually did violate the company's community standards. but facebook decided not to mess with that. even though it may have violated the standard then zuckerberg himself thought it did because it was newsworthy and they would not tamper with it. that's when zuckerberg started made it explicit so now he
believes that politicians should be able to say whatever they want so people can judge them by their speech even if it's harmful. as time goes on it is tougher and tougher for facebook to defend it is a bullhorn for her toxic speech. that's a quarter he painted himself into. >>host: it is front and center right now because recent months big tech companies decided to take a different tactic it is a very divisive issue. i am curious when i wrote my own book i focused on the loophole which was the carveout from the mid- 19 nineties that were just tiny startup entities to be the town square and not be held liable. but now we all know is
journalist these are giant media companies. as you dug in to both companies of google and facebook where do you come out are they the town square or how are they something else? >> i think 230 is the regulation are the law passed in 1996 was really before we had these giant platforms. i don't think that's the main issue. so what will they do to please speech, make a safe environment for their users
and 230 gives them the opportunity to do that but where they draw the line to do that. zuckerberg always says you don't want me to be the arbiter of speech of 3 billion people. and no he is not the ideal arbiter but this is his platform he is the arbiter and the person who decides where the line is and what can and cannot be said on his platform is designed to make people feel uncomfortable we will not have pornography on here we will not have misinformation about important things were information about voting facebook still doesn't do that great job even though it says it is trying or things like
trump quite often sends out that makes people uncomfortable and even zuckerberg himself somewhat toxic it is a tough line to draw but that's what he built and he has to own up to that. so that really is the issue and the fact is he's not doing a great job because the more the speech is exposed it feels wron wrong. he has more and more difficulty denying it that's what he constantly takes little many steps back when confronted with the consequences of where his decisions are at a given moment. >> i want to come back to misinformation the first i want to note the beginning of your book you do this so well
i call you the david halberstam of chats because you get right in their lives with the details but also paint the big picture back in africa and during entrepreneurs and users around him it almost seems like a head of state and this is something i always think about with facebook you get at this later at the point at which you decided you wanted to write about facebook now we know they have more users than the largest countries in the world. facebook in particular, the these countries like the east india company. did you find that and what does it mean? >> i definitely found that.
i decided to write facebook when zuckerberg posted in 2015 that 1 billion people have logged into facebook, active users in a 24 hour period. the total membership of facebook even back then was larger than a country now it's bigger than any country approaching 3 billion people. when i started to do the book we went to africa and you are right and he came to africa from italy meeting with the prime minister and the pope. and if humans before that the head of india and came to
facebook on a state visit. facebook had a foreign-policy. he was like the head of state almost like a god among the geeks of nigeria they have a very active community of entrepreneurs. his coming there blue their mind. it was a surprise visit actually this little startup community he popped in but they could not believe what was. so i realize later that was peak facebook because only a few months later the 2016 election occurred that was the moment really where it slipped for facebook you went from a revered company but from that point on it was not skating by it had to answer for all the things that it did that were
toxic and from people's attention and compromising their data and privacy and that was the flip and then the book became an exercise to understand how that happened then to go back even more than i thought to the early days of facebook and then to understand how this happened. >> i can relay as an author when your story changes in the middle of your book cycle you have to scramble. >> it took me a few years to do and a few months in gave me the advantage to cover facebook and to interview the people with hundreds of interviews there while this is happening the company's reputation was unraveling and
in that process. >> so what did you learn about mark zuckerberg and his childhood i could help us understand where the company is today? >> i talked to his parents. his mother told me a story which i felt resonated with the way facebook unfolded. he grew up in westchester count county. on the public schools he went to didn't have a lot of advanced classes and computer programs so he wanted to go to private school he loved conquerors like alexander the great so the oldest sibling in
the family has gone off to harvard that year her mother didn't on - - his mother didn't want to lose to kids the same year we he heard about the program that would require reporting and wanted to go there his mother said to send let's just interview the people at horace mann and maybe you'll like it he said i will interview the people but i'm going. and he went so that reminded me a lot of the decision-making that i learn took place at facebook through all of history quite often something would come up they would warm get on - - one against it sometimes they would say this is that right it is morally wrong and he says let's go do it and i thought were going to exeter.
>> actually that's really first became familiar with the program known as facebook but when he makes his mind up that's it. and since he has total power facebook he controls the majority of the voting stock even the board of directors cannot overrule him if he says let's do it and he says exeter they go to exeter. >> that is fascinating thinking of total power of thinking of a wonderful anecdote the guys of sauron. [laughter] >> when he was younger he had a habit unbelievably unnerving you could ask him a question he wouldn't answer he would just stare at you. i think human beings have to blink just because of your eye
health. [laughter] but he seems to defy that sometimes when he stares at you. some people describe it at length in their accounts the first time i met him 2006 i asked him several questions about facebook and he would just look at me and not answer the question. what's going on here? he god better over the years but every so often you will get the stair. and one of his lieutenants describes to me as the eye of sauron. >> that's something. you mention roger mcnamee in fact i encouraged him to write zach and i connected him with andrew wiley on that.
>> he will thank you for that i'm sure. >>host: it's interesting because when i first met roger he was going out into the media and the seed investor with big tech companies and an early mentor to mark and elevation had a stake. >> it passed and roger invested personally. >> that's right. they did put money in but roger benefited greatly initially. >> so he was out talking against his own book at that stage to the media to say i came concerned pre- 2016 i felt there was something wrong
he wrote a letter to mark and cheryl this is like your kind of goal to come to you to say i think we have a problem and apparently they went very the corporate pr on him very quickly and shut him down. it's hard for me to metabolize how someone can get that information from a trusted figure and not take that more seriously. >> and facebook downplayed the degrees and i did look into this. i think he has a more accurate account of the degree of his influence on facebook.
>> to have him described as his main mentor. but i did find that some of the stories he tells are true and he did connect roger with mark and then yahoo tried to buy facebook and he did have a role to help connect sheryl sandberg to facebook that the time he was complaining he faded from the picture he was at a regular advisor. getting a letter from someone who was important in the earlier days of facebook but now someone we're in close contact with and these things
he was complaining about were under discussion but facebook already decided it would not do anything about the misinformation and circulating in 2016 it wasn't a new thing that they had already made that decision and roger was right to call that out it was something that they knew about it already decided not to do anything. that by and large help trump and her clinton. >> going deep with sheryl sandberg i want to get to in a minute what made them make that decision?
and if they are liberal or libertarian but to say we see this and not do anything about it. >> so reconstruct the frame of 2016. three things were happening with the election. first is that trump uses facebook in the way it supposed to be used. and then to share with me during the course of the book it was beautiful. essentially the trump campaign plays facebook like a stradivarius like a harvard banjo you find in the street. the trump campaign accepted to help show them the ins and outs and then the clinton
campaign is part one and then misinformation people found they could make money by circulating fake stories with publications that did not exist that would make hillary clinton look bad like pizza gate running a child trafficking ring add pizzeria in washington and then people go to a page where there are ads to be financially motivated campaign and then russian involvement and then to have much exposure as the misinformation campaign but hundreds of thousands of people and super disturbing the russians are using
facebook to help metal in the election. so this unrolled late so after the election we could talk about who it was treated them but there was a big debate and the person who was running the meeting the head of the dc operation the lobbying operation and a lot of people in the washington office he felt his job was to carry water for the republicans he is to date charlotte in college.
and a tragic situation. and then to take on the responsibility during that period and pretty much operating with more authority. and then the argument we should do anything about the misinformation and said that's like tilting the playing field to remove this information from one candidate and that's wrong the playing field was tilted. but he won the day. >> that cambridge analytica asked candle. so the story but there were
crazy characters involved. and what became the biggest scandal in that narrative. and that what it did was more damaging but this got the most traction. and in 2014 and got that information of 78 million but in 2010 when facebook gave away information about users to developers and when that facebook users signed up to have a survey or an application from a third-party
they got the information from cambridge university that you can get the information by doing this in oculus survey. and then to use that in the election. >> are you aware facebook it have an effect on november? >> it's going to. >>host: let me put it differently are you worried they can we elect donald trump? >> so which parts would be used? the regarding campaign will use it better than the trump campaign did. they will not dismissal like that. the trump campaign had a big head start was collecting the
data and building on it over the last four years. the facebook has indicated they are considering cutting off political advertising if that happens that's a giant win for the trump campaign because they have a big lead that the biting campaign could never close. >> this is all part of the deeper conversation about the black box and the incredible information of symmetry on either side that's what i tried to look deeply in my own book so much of the financial sector in 2008 with the large entities does not have the same amount of information. adam smith one oh one to work
>> and then to testify before congress and says that understand you don't charge many had you make millions of dollars? he said senator, we run ads and facebook says they are good for people we know a lot about you we can show you relevant ads but in some cases that happens. enable send you an ad for something that is tailored to what you like. and then the advertisers can use and information that they manipulate you and this is something people don't want.
you express your intent to search for something. i want to buy something in this category if they won't do that because they are searching for it. she thought facebook would go there and know enough about you if they had enough data to be able to do the advertising they were doing before but advertising with intent and there were other things that got more and more information modeling on facebook behavior. as you search through the browser, that information would be reported and they would end up fighting other databases to
get a more complete picture of you. so there was definitely a hand in that and this was the person in charge of lobbying them. they made a deal early on she would take charge basically of all the things zuckerberg didn't want to do and that included that kind of lobbying and the flashing the policy stuff into the business model. so, basically she is responsible for the big chunks of facebook. and i think zuckerberg is responsible and admitted this probably was an error of not monitoring of stuff more closely because when things went awry in a row into one of the things we are talking about were in that category it was below his radar and he wasn't able to marshal the resources to fight back.
>> host: cheryl was the chief of staff who was the basic economic adviser in the clinton campaign, the architect with a lot of regulation in the financial sector and what was done in the financial sector and what has been done in the technical sector is a little bit of what's keep the market open, but the big get bigger and yet, there was another level not a lot of awareness, not everybody ovecan be a software developer. we can't have an economy where facebook isn't the best example, but you have a multibillion-dollar corporation with employees into that conversation particularly seems to be coming to the floor. and in your book you go back and look at some of the regulatory
battles facebook has waged for example in 2011. so far it seems that tech companies in general have been able to promise we will be a battery and go off and then pretty much do whatever they want in terms of stepping on competitors before they can become a threat. how will that play out in the future do you think? >> guest: the 2016 election turned things for facebook and then they went into a swan dive after that and it took a long time to understand what was happening. 2017 is also the year all of this is happening while people were criticizing facebook more intensely and they went on this tone deaf to to her of the 50 states. >> host: did you go on that?
>> guest: well, i did connect on a couple of points on the tour. i had a long interview in kansas with him towards the end. that was a moment not just for facebook, facebook sort of dragged down the whole technical sector with them because they became the poster child for looking at all the power of these companies have. what will we do about this, we don't like this. so i think what is called a tech lash got underway because of that. that was the renovating factor. and that's why the regulatory forces that you are talking about are you serious now performing impact trust society, the ftc site and the congressional side to be able to look closely at doing something with the power of defense companies in facebook.
>> host: is interesting just in the last couple of days, there's a bunch of major transatlantic rulings around tech. the european union was trying to get apple to avoid tax dodging and they were not able to push that case through. we had safe harbor that is the sort of data sharing between the ease you into the u.s.. that is off the table now. some of this about how we are going to do the tax transatlantic league gets down to this particular administration but it also seems to beg the existential question of how it is going to work and what the value is around governing are going to be. it seems like we are moving to kind of what i call the u.s., europe and china may be going in different directions where one of the major advances of the firms had been the network effect ieffect can and had the o cross borders everywhere.
what is this new fractured worldview for the? >> guest: is a challenge. it is a challenge. i think facebook is very concerned about tiktok. if facebook were not constrained and owned by the antitrust concerns and some of the geopolitical situations, it would be doing what it can do by tiktok and release their own version of the. they've had success trying to emulate the competitors. they had better success buying the competitors and integrating them into the facebook family. so it is a problem. but when you've got such a big chunk of the world's population, what you are saying is there is a network effect is difficult to dislodge. >> host: is interesting. i remember about a year ago i think there was a report that ran off after mark zuckerberg,
looked at the note book and that is when he asked about china and breakup of facebook saying we are the u.s. national champion. we need to be kept to an order to competin orderto compete wit. do you think that is fair? >> guest: it's certainly an argument of things that could play into the audience. but i think that it shouldn't affect the way we look at facebook. we should be facebook should be able to get away with more because we are worried about china. >> host: interesting. i want to ask if you personal questions about your process on the buck, how you report and maybe start with the fact i think you said it took you a year to get permission to do this in the way you did. what was that like?
>> guest: when i undertake a project like this, and i did similar things with google, i think you get the best information by talking to your subjects. and talking to them quite a lot. i found that really useful in the google box, and i wanted the same access in the facebook book. that meant they would give me access to free reign to talk to anyone i wanted to in the company and be able to use it for the buck. no strings attached with that. they didn't get to read it until it was already printed. i think it was like a week or two before the book was released to the public. i did fact check, i promised i would wish i would have anyway.
i hired several fact checkers to make sure we were not making errors and that the things i said people said they actually said. and it was a question of saying i'd like you to trust me and this is something you should do not just for me, that because you are so important in history and in part because the president made and i had been telling facebook for a long time i had a good relationship with them and zuckerberg and elliott who was the head of policy who i actually worked with on the google tal book and they said o. >> host: what is the most surprising thing you've learned deep in the topic for decades really? >> guest: i think it's interesting how facebook was changed so much by zuckerberg personally.
how well he managed to channel himself throughout his company. i don't know if you've visited the facebook campus, but you go there and there' there is a whot of buildings. the main buildings first was a quarter-mile long and then i think there will be a third. you can do a walk it feels like you are walking outside. there's all these posters very orwellian almost. there was a research lab and so it has this aspect to it where he's able to get across what he wants throughout the whole company. it is a culture. the motto was move fast and
break things and they realized that a certain point but it probably didn't play well. so they changed it to move fast with stable infrastructure. it really was the way that they did operate. and literally three for two codes. the website didn't work for a little while. you could just reboot. with the tools that zuckerberg grew up with, he understood that it doesn't really matter if you have a bug in the code because like microsoft word for instance, wait months for the new version, it comes every 15 minutes. minutes. metaphorically, you could argue that they did move fast and break bigger things. some people say democracy.
i think that's maybe an overstep. but discourse. >> host: it's interesting because move fast and break the it's kind of the antithesis of where business itself would seem to be going. there's a lot of talk right now about moving from the well of them which countries are all about efficiency. very few employees growing very quickly thanks to these technologies. when you move into a conversation about resiliency, which is everything from the good corporate governance and some people will question whether zuckerberg should have so much power, to the social corporate contact to the vast wealth of companies to be shared. what would you say to that, and what is the conversation with facebook about the?
>> guest: i think what is startling is the depth of the conversation with an facebook about that. the first-time facebook finds itself in the decision-making at odds with substantial chunk of employees, it used to be that the idea of the weekly q&a is mark zuckerberg data, you can ask him anything and be very frank with his workforce about what he thought and what was going on. that wouldn't have been, and now it's routine. anything he says lightly beat the whole tape of the interview might be leaked, and that's happened. it got to the point where they simply some of the employees did a virtual walk out. it have to be virtual because they were working from home. but they stopped working in
protest of the policies that zuckerberg had about the political advertising, and that is unprecedented in that company. so, i think that is probably bigger than the regulators, bigger than competition. that is a worry for zuckerberg. he is a long-term thinker. he spent a couple billion dollars for virtual reality company because he thought that was going to be the competitor in ten years from now. he said he wanted to own the technology. come if he doesn't get the best engineers, the best ai people, the best everything, he can't fulfill that vision. he can't compete in the years to come. so he's very worried if he loses his workforce and facebook isn't a good and moral place to work for it. >> host: a lot of critics said as you say that it isn't
regulators or even the marketplace that will curb these companies begin to use, because in the firms it's all about human capital and who can get the best work for them. there was a piece recently by sam, the former vp product development at facebook information, and he posed some really interesting ideas about this coming battle between the virtual world and the physical world. and this is sort of about transition we are now going through in this covid era overnight. we knew we were going more digital, virtual, not things you can touch and feel, but that's now happened overnight. these two worlds come with different governing principles. it seems facebook is a good encapsulation of that. it's about the decentralization, although ironically also centralization in the sense that you have a very powerful leader at the top.
it's about being cross-border, transnational, kind of the opposite of the mainstream political conversation we are having now, which is about the nation state. what does faceboo this tell us t where the world is headed? >> guest: as you say, when you are on facebook. it's for those that you spend a lot of time with and in the same place with and you may even have )-close-paren but your government because they are part of your network on facebook. and as facebook tries to expand, the ways you come in contact
with the bat and the virtual world becomes your world, as you say it's sort of for this age you are not supposed to leave the house much and that's important, but you mentioned something else in terms of governance. i think facebook is trying to respond to that by doing things like this oversight board, which is forming, where in certain very limited cases the board will have the ability to overrule the ultimate decision-maker, mark zuckerberg on content decisions. you know, what individual piece of content can come up and come down. and the board might even be able to make a suggestion if it is adopted about facebook's policies. this remains to be seen. it's been a pretty long time for the board to be set up and start making its rulings. but i think around the time
2018, not long after cambridge and over the cut, they started to think a lot about governance. and my conversations, i had like nine conversations with him during the course of the book. it was brought up he was thinking a lot about governance and he'd done a lot of thinking about it and he is a sponge for information. he contacted people who were experts on governance and gathered things at his house or have conversations so he could learn morthey couldlearn more a. so i think he's trying to ahead of the curve on that as well. >> host: interesting. where do you think facebook is headed in terms of going into other industries? we've already seen them try currency. the concept is a good idea, but i wouldn't trust facebook. i'd rather see a coalition of banks doing this. but it's interesting, because it
is pushing the boundaries of where we are going. facebook may not be the right player to run it. where else are they going that we should be watching? >> guest: they haven't given up on the idea, but they had to scale back. they tried to run back through the currency idea in the face of incredible stuff this is the about the company. they tried to say we are setting up this mutual organization but only in switzerland. symbolic of neutrality. though they created and the people who were going to take advantage of it the most. virtual reality or better reality is going to be important for facebook as time goes on.