Was a leaked internal Facebook memo aimed at justifying the social network’s growth-at-any-cost strategy? Or simply a way to open debate on difficult questions over new technologies?
The extraordinarily blunt memo by a high-ranking executive — leaked this week and quickly repudiated by the author and by Facebook — warned that the social network’s goal of connecting the world might have negative consequences, but that these were outweighed by the positives.
“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” the 2016 memo by top executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth said. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”
While Bosworth and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the memo was only a way to provoke debate, it created a new firestorm for the social network mired in controversy over the hijacking of personal data by a political consulting firm linked to Donald Trump.
David Carroll, a professor of media design at the New School Parsons, tweeted that the memo highlighted a “reckless hubristic attitude” by the world’s biggest social network.
“What is so striking is that an executive chose to have this conversation on a Facebook wall,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social networks. “He showed poor judgment and poor business communication skills. It speaks to Facebook’s culture.”
Grygiel said these kinds of issues require “thoughtful discussion” and should take place within a context of protecting users. “When these companies build new products and services, their job is to evaluate the risks, and not just know about them, but ensure public safety.”
Bosworth, considered part of chief executive Zuckerberg’s inner circle, wrote: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is ‘de facto’ good.”
On Thursday, he said he merely wanted to open a discussion and added that “I don’t agree with the post today and I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it.”
Zuckerberg responded that he and many others at Facebook “strongly disagreed” with the points raised.
‘Offloading’ ethical questions
Jim Malazita, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said it was not surprising to see the memo in an industry whose work culture is highly compartmentalized.
Malazita said the memo frames the discussion with the assumption that technology and connecting people is always positive.
“By the assumptions built into that framework they are already shutting down a whole bunch of conversations,” he said.
Malazita added that most people who learn computer science are taught to make these technologies work as well as possible, while “offloading” the question of moral responsibility.
“It’s not that they don’t care, but even when they care about the social impact, there’s a limit to how much they practice that care.”
Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said it may be too easy to blame Facebook for misuse of the platform.
“I’m rarely in a position to defend Facebook,” he said, but the view that a technology is worth spreading even though some people will use it for terrible ends “is something you could have believed about the telegraph, the telephone, email, SMS, the iPhone, etc,” Benton tweeted.
Doing the right thing
Patrick Lin, director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, said he sees “no evidence that Facebook’s culture is unethical, though just one senior executive in the right place can poison the well.”
“I’d guess that most Facebook employees want to do the right thing and are increasingly uncomfortable with how the proverbial sausage is made,” Lin added.
Copies of internal responses at Facebook published by The Verge website showed many employees were angry or upset over the Bosworth memo but that some defended the executive.
Others said the leaks may suggest Facebook is being targeted by spies or “bad actors” trying to embarrass the company.