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An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination

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INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER // WINNER OF THE SABEW BEST IN BUSINESS AWARD A Book of the Year: Fortune , Foreign Affairs , The Times (London), Cosmopolitan , TechCrunch, WIRED “The ultimate takedown.” – New York Times Book Review Award-winning  New York Times  reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang unveil the tech story of our times in a riveting, behind-the-scenes exposé that offers the definitive account of Facebook’s fall from grace .  Once one of Silicon Valley’s greatest success stories, Facebook has been under constant fire for the past five years, roiled by controversies and crises. It turns out that while the tech giant was connecting the world, they were also mishandling users’ data, spreading fake news, and amplifying dangerous, polarizing hate speech. The company, many said, had simply lost its way. But the truth is far more complex. Leadership decisions enabled, and then attempted to deflect attention from, the crises. Time after time, Facebook’s engineers were instructed to create tools that encouraged people to spend as much time on the platform as possible, even as those same tools boosted inflammatory rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and partisan filter bubbles. And while consumers and lawmakers focused their outrage on privacy breaches and misinformation, Facebook solidified its role as the world’s most voracious data-mining machine, posting record profits, and shoring up its dominance via aggressive lobbying efforts. Drawing on their unrivaled sources, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang take readers inside the complex court politics, alliances and rivalries within the company to shine a light on the fatal cracks in the architecture of the tech behemoth. Their explosive, exclusive reporting led them to a shocking conclusion: The missteps of the last five years were not an anomaly but an inevitability—this is how Facebook was built to perform. In a period of great upheaval, growth has remained the one constant under the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Both have been held up as archetypes of uniquely 21 st  century executives—he the tech “boy genius” turned billionaire, she the ultimate woman in business, an inspiration to millions through her books and speeches. But sealed off in tight circles of advisers and hobbled by their own ambition and hubris, each has stood by as their technology is coopted by hate-mongers, criminals and corrupt political regimes across the globe, with devastating consequences. In An Ugly Truth , they are at last held accountable. 

350 pages, Kindle Edition

First published July 1, 2021

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About the author

Sheera Frenkel

3 books28 followers
Sheera Frenkel covers cybersecurity from San Francisco for the New York Times. Previously, she spent over a decade in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent, reporting for BuzzFeed, NPR, the Times of London and McClatchy Newspapers.

Based in Washington, DC, Cecilia Kang covers technology and regulatory policy for the New York Times. Before joining the paper in 2015, she reported on technology and business for the Washington Post for ten years.

Along with Cecilia Kang, she was part of the team of investigative journalists recognized as 2019 Finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. The team also won the George Polk Award for National Reporting and the Gerald Loeb Award for Investigative Reporting.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 710 reviews
Profile Image for Mandy.
144 reviews5 followers
September 1, 2021
Okay, so this book doesn't contain many facts about facebook that I hadn't heard or read before. BUT!!! The authors of this book present a huge cohesive background report on the character of the company, formed by the characters of its leader(s). Also, the book refrains from petting facebook on the head and saying all of its downsides are unintentional side effects of the way it's been constructed. These two authors prove that whatever downsides facebook has - hate spreading, incenting violence, fake news spreading with all due consequences, influencing people's moods - is as intentional as can be. Conscious decisions are taken about every one of those issues. Decisions that always favor the amount of time people spend on facebook. Hate and negativity keep people there longer and get them more involved on the network, so it is NOT banned. Instead groups are now favored in which hate, fake news and incenting violence can go on uncontrolled and uncorrected by a larger society - all this with even graver danger of things getting out of control in real life. The network influences our society, our politics, our willingness to defend ourselves against a virus and even our willingness to commit crimes - against individuals, against peoples. And none of that falls outside the vision of facebook's leaders like some authors suggested, for instance the author of "Zucked", who suggested that it was all just an unintended side effect that facebook's leaders didn't have a clear notion of yet. The research done for this book proves that there's no such thing as naivity involved here. At all. It may not be intentional, but it sure is taken in their stride and the world just has to put up with it until lawmakers do something about it. Which will be....never?

Readers who are looking to find new juicy facts might be let down by this book. Not very much tea here. But if you're looking to get a better understanding of how the mechanism of one of the world's greatest companies works and what the cost of that is for the user, this book is highly recommended. It takes Sandberg and Zuckerberg out of the shadows and puts them in broad daylight so we get to see a clear picture of who they are, what drives them and thus, what we can expect from them in the future.

Should we, the readers, still be on facebook? That question sings in the back of our minds throughout the book, which doesn't answer it for us, by the way. This book was not written to drive people away from it, but rather to urge parties involved to stop the ad-based and therefore algorithm workings of the platform. And, as there are no real alternatives, who dares make the jump anyway? On the other hand, this book gives clear insight into the fact that instead of devoting our time, attention and energy to a social platform, we are really involving ourselves deeply with an advertising platform. Zooming out that far, does that really make facebook unmissable in our lives?

Great book. Well written. Audiobook version well read and good and not-repetitive content with a solid base of thorough research.

update 11 august 2021:

I am leaving facebook. The contents of the book have sank in fully and the scales have tipped to the leap side. I was an early adopter of the internet and social media and now I will be an early adopter of a facebook-less life. Early, because I think it's a movement going on. Uncontrolled growth in cells is cancer - lethal. I wonder what uncontrolled growth does to a "social" media platform, the people on it and the people who are not even on it at all. I'm not the only one leaping. I find myself in good company of artists, musicians, readers and thinkers who also dare ask themselves some questions.

Does anyone dare take the leap, I wondered in my review? And if not, why not? What are we telling eachother and ourselves? Was there no life before facebook? Is there no life after facebook?

I'm going to find out.

Update 1 September 2021:

After 9 days of dopamine-shortage cold turkey my life and energy came back. Only once did I miss fb when I had difficulty finding a friend’s contact info outside the platform, but that solved itself within 20 minutes. Do I miss anything apart from that? No. After the first 9 days a facebookless life feels like pure bliss. Calm, focused and way more deeply connected with real life. Not missing a single thing.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
November 5, 2021
With the Meta rebranding and the sequel to The Circle coming out, this seemed to be an especially auspicious time to dive into some Big Tech non-fiction. Reads like a thriller, but lacks a clear structure/comparison to other tech firms to elevate the book beyond the average
If we break democracy that will be the only thing we’ll be remembered for

It's quite amazing that ubiquitous things as the like button, friending and the ever continuing scroll of the newsfeed, that also form the core of this website, have all been “invented” in 2007/2008.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination details the rise of the original social network. As the authors already note at the start of the book, this meteoric rise is already a pop culture reference point, with the movie and many books covering the same ground.
The focus of this book is on the mature Facebook, and all the scandals it's been embroiled in since 2014. Sheryl Sandberg is the main actor besides Mark Zuckerberg, and her influence on the scaling of the company is profound. In general the trajectory of the company is incredible when one looks back at it, and the general management skills of Sandberg are kind of buffeted in the criticism the many interviewees of the book level at her for the involvement with the company at large.

The book starts of impressively with the 16.000 privileged access accounts at Facebook HQ, and how every year a couple of engineers abused this power in real life.
Facebook’s definition of privacy is self serving and narrow and failed projects that gathered a treasure trove of data from users definitely show this. The lawmakers pushback against this is a major task for Sandberg, but strangely enough the extra demands placed on the company make the rise of a major rival rather more unlikely. Neutrality being exploited by conservatives to push their agenda and conspiracy theories as mainstream is another topic.

The ugly truth is that we believe so deeply in connecting people that it’s good in itself one executive says, and this adagium to defend free speech even if it's harmful or blatantly untrue is a major pitfall for the company. Algorithms amplifying interactions that indicate emotions, even it the emotion is negative, hence making hate speech and outrage contagious. Another thing fostering polarisation is the rise of private messaging and app groups. With interesting enough in 2016 already signs of anti-vaccine rabbit holes emerging on the platform.
Meanwhile the company's head of lobbying is also being responsible for content moderation, and Zuckerberg seems to be a veritable libertarian, compounding the problems.
Engagement in general seems to be the magic word at Facebook, being more important (as does having direct reporting lines to Zuckerberg) than security or privacy.

The gliding scale of Trump his behaviour brought additional pressure on what’s normal. Something aided by Russian actions that reached 126 million Americans in 2016 through a sponsored covert ad campaign, only costing USD 100.000.
How the fuck do we only know about this now? an audit committee board member on the presentation about Russian interference asks, and that is exactly what one thinks while reading the book. Company politics, with departments fighting each other seemingly much more important than transparency or public good, is definitely a factor that caused the conundrum. You don’t get fired for stupidity, you get fired for being disloyal notes one former employee. Trump being the single largest spender on political ads on Facebook after 2016 also gives some insight in why he was not limited in firing up his following.

Grow fast and break some along the way is taken to a whole new level when data of 87 million users exploited by Cambridge Analytica. Growth was the priority, privacy and security were an afterthought is even more cynical in the face of 24.000 Rohingya dead, with the platform only having 5 Burmese speakers in content moderation. Diversity in general is problematic, with in 2019 only 3,8% of staff being black. The case that Zuckerberg just bought Instagram and Whatsapp to kill competition, one of the main allegations that is levelled at Facebook in the prologue, feels rather thin. If anything Zuckerberg from the book comes across as a strategic thinker acutely aware of the power of data. Antitrust seems to me more a nice bonus to the larger plan he has with the company, with the Meta Platforms rebranding as latest exponent.

The bottomline was that we couldn’t hurt our bottomline, and the authors make this message abundantly clear. The engaging nature of the events is not a problem with this book, but I do lack some broader context to the events (and how other tech firms handled these emerging events and trends). Also the structure of the book is more thematic than chronological, making a clear image of the hydra of problems of the company less easy to gather. Finally, having read books about the rise of Uber (Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber), the excellent story of the Theranos demise (Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup) and the equally great podcast series on sect like WeWork (https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast...) the story of tech company hubris is just not as fresh and surprising. Still an important and well readable book that makes you reflect on the major changes involving the internet we have all witnessed in the past 20 years.
201 reviews
July 16, 2021
I don’t know if this substantially added anything to the conversation about Facebook and Zuckerberg that hasn’t already been said.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,909 reviews439 followers
August 5, 2021
“If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.”

We pay for FB by having our personal information sold to whomever wants to target us. For a small sum, you can target your post or ad, to a certain demographic audience, in a certain area. It's effective for finding crooks, making targeted commercials and milking the users, who should spend as much time as possible on the site.

I was at a real estate agent the other day and he said "I don't think we need to advertise in the paper, targeting the right audience on FB works really well". In this case of course, I hope it will be for my benefit. At the instance I was a little bit surprised, I had forgotten.

Even if there isn't much new material in this book, if you have followed Facebook's issues the past few years, I found it comprehensive and insightful. Of course, it made me promptly want to delete the app permanently - but how would I otherwise keep track of family and friends strewn across the globe? So I won't. I am however, very mindful of what I post and have restricted Facebook's access to tracking me across websites. However, I suppose they collect it anyway.

One thing I keep finding disturbing, but which isn't really discussed in the book, is how things I have only discussed keep coming up as ads on FB. That is, things I have not googled or searched for anywhere, but talked about within "earshot" of my mobile and its ever present algorithms. The main problem with our current life style is that machine learning knows more about us than we do about ourselves.

There is also a real danger of being the weaker party. For years, FB would refuse to fact check anything, or even attempt curtail outright lies. If you can make lies viral, well, you're just using your right to free speech according to Zuck. This has changed recently, but how well it holds up will depend on who is sitting the oval office. Facebook's main purpose is their bottom line and that is all.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews235 followers
October 7, 2021
One of a long string of books on Facebook. This one stands out from the access and range of interviews, the description of policy and decision-making at the very top, and a focus on the period from 2016 to 2020.

The dilemmas, broadly defined, are the spread of misinformation and hate speech; or a platform for incitement of crimes against humanity, as was the case for Burma. The playbook stayed the same. Blind panic, confusion, denial, apologizing, and then pivoting back to expansion.

The discussion of Russian-sponsored disinformation around the 2016 election is also interesting; the authors' retelling gives the impression that security had wanted to inform top leadership - Sandberg, Zuckerberg, et al., but were repeatedly stopped from doing so. Another executive goes right out and says, and I quote, "you can’t disclose what you don’t know".

In the short term, expect more apologies from Zuckerberg et al. and for little to change without more substantial pressure. The calls for breaking up Facebook continue; this would be the biggest breakup since AT&T in the 1980s if it goes through. The apologies continue, the shareholders think they're enough.
Profile Image for Chris Boutté.
Author 8 books163 followers
July 16, 2021
Facebook is constantly in the news, and they’ve made the topics of privacy, data, misinformation, and ethics a global conversation. Prior to this book, I hadn’t heard of Sheera Frenkel or Cecilia Kang’s writing, but I’m now officially a fan. They’ve been working on this book for years while also reporting on all of the news surrounding Facebook, and they managed to put together an incredible story while working from opposite sides of the country during the pandemic. I usually find books like these dull to read, but these two are incredible writers, and they were able to hold my attention throughout the book. They discuss the beginnings of Facebook and the origin of Sheryl Sandberg joining the company and dive into all of the major stories since Facebook’s inception.

What separates this book from others on this topic is the insane amount of research these two put into this book. They conducted hundreds of interviews with current and former Facebook employees to paint a comprehensive picture of what was going on behind the scenes and some of the ethical issues Zuckerberg and Sandberg face. While both Kang and Frenkel express their personal opinions on Twitter, they did an excellent job simply presenting the story with this book so you can form your own opinions about Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and the company as a whole. Due to the extensive amount of interviews, you get to hear what many of the employees were thinking, discussing, and debating during each of the stories, and that was probably my favorite aspect of the book. As an optimist, I always believe people join companies and start companies with good intentions, but the nuance of these stories show us how things gradually go sideways.

I don’t have many (if any) criticisms of this book except there wasn’t really anything major that I didn’t know. As someone who has followed each Facebook scandal over the years, I had a decent idea about most of the stories. Before reading the book, I was wondering if they’d be able to tell me anything I didn’t know already. I think where this book shines is within the fact that Frenkel and Kang were able to fill in some details that we often don’t hear about in the mainstream, and they were also able to give voices to those who have been trying to do the right thing from within the company. And if nothing else, this is a great historical documentation of the company, so for anyone who isn’t “in the know” and future generations doing research, this is a perfect book for these readers.
Profile Image for Lindsay Nixon.
Author 22 books720 followers
August 25, 2021
4.5 stars

If you have a Facebook account, you should read this book.

If you want honest elections or are an ally to BLM, you should read this book.

A few “spoilers”

- any Facebook employee has access to your personal information, including what you say in Facebook messenger to others. Indeed, engineers are regularly fired for “snooping” and using that information (eg engjneer finding out where a girl he likes hangs out so he can be there)

- Cheryl sandberg is not a feminist; rather she’s a patriarch alley that only cares to make money.
I feel validated for my review of Plan B more than ever.

- Facebook ran tests with putting happy or positive things in news feeds or negative. Because negative made people stay on longer, Facebook went with that. Yes, that means Facebook purposely shows you the worst shit to make you depressed and scared so you’ll stay on longer.

- Facebook made an intentional exemption to allow Donald trump and other “political figures” to post anything, even it if was factually invalid.

- Facebook helped trump get elected in 2016

- Facebook allowed trump supporters and pacs to post fake news or false “ads” willingly because #money (they also refused to take them down because #money)

- mark is trying to rewrite facebooks history. Facebook was not created for free speech or libertarian whatever. It was created to rate girls as hot or Not.

- Mark seems to have a Napoleon complex. “Why don’t people treat me like bill gates?” 🙄

Based on the human rights issues brought up in this book that I’ve not included in my review, I am going to be #deletefacebook

Although I have not used the platform personally in more than 3 years (during which time my mental health greatly improved) I have maintained a professional page, which I am now in the process of removing.
173 reviews1 follower
August 11, 2021
As someone who deleted my Facebook account 5 years ago over frustration with Facebook selling my contact info to politicians (Beto, you had a lot of supporters who wanted to tell me how great you are), I expected to enjoy this book and be astounded at how truly aweful facebook was. I had already read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" and was ready to hate Facebook even more. But . . . I had heard it all before. Sure, this book had a lot of sources to give the behind the scenes of the dirt, but what I got was what? Zuckerberg is an introverted geek genius who wanted Facebook to grow? Sheryl Sandberg is a smart cutthroat business woman who seemed out of touch with common people? Is this news?

There was a bit of massaging of the story to highlight the "Zuckerberg is Evil" theme that is unnecessary. Twitter and instagram profit just as much from bringing out the worst in people, and they aren't run by Zuckerberg, but we are led to believe that Zuckerberg is different. That Facebook is different. That Zuckerberg's views on free speech was just a convenient stance for someone who wanted to profit from misinformation. Free-speech viewpoints touted by the likes of John Stuart Mills (it sounds like what Zuck follows), while not popular in certain zipcodes , have a strong philosophical foundation and were developed to help society, not profit from it. And Facebooks wishy wash responses to certain free speech/misinformation issues weren't indications of Facebook's reluctance to do the "right" thing- they were a perfect example of how business are bad at doing lots of things, like reading the room.

Monitoring free speech fairly is basically the hardest thing in the world to do. And there aren't universal rules that people over the world will agree on. And even if you could agree on a set of standards, the level of monitoring required to police the platform would destroy the profit margins, leading to more privacy violations or the elimination of the platform as a free product.

These are all tricky problems, but instead of considering this, it just turns into another Trump basher. Expected more.

Profile Image for Come Musica.
1,614 reviews417 followers
September 28, 2021
Quanto Facebook muove le masse, influenza le decisioni, è invasivo e pervasivo?
Durante la lettura di questa inchiesta così puntuale e sconvolgente, ho avuto in mente millenovecentoottanquattro di Orwell.
Facebook altro non è che The Big Brother di Orwell: il grande riflettore (o meglio, il riflettore maggiore, come il fratello maggiore) che monitora i nostri gusti e nel monitorarli, li condiziona e li manipola. Non solo. Facebook mina la democrazia dei Paesi dell’intero pianeta.

Questa inchiesta è frutto di più di mille ore di interviste fatte a più di quattrocento persone, interne (sia che lo siano state sia che lo siano ancora) all'organizzazione, e percorre gli anni che vanno dalla sua nascita fino ai giorni nostri.
Tutti i fatti riportati sono stati opportunamente riportati e nonostante questi fatti siano noti, il modo in cui le due giornaliste ne scrivono è avvincente, sconvolgente e al tempo stesso scorrevole.
L'istinto primario che si ha mentre si legge il libro e soprattutto alla fine dello stesso è quello di cancellare gli account legati ai social di Mark Zuckerberg.
Nata per gioco, Facebook è diventata, negli anni, una piattaforma rubadati in grado di determinare gli esiti delle elezioni politiche.
Zuckerberg ha spinto così tanto lo sviluppo degli algoritmi che sono alla base di Facebook che non si è curato proprio di tutelare la privacy dei suoi utenti.
Accecato dalla smania di successo, Mark Zuckerberg ha sacrificato tutto in nome del diolike.
Dietro la parvenza della tutela del diritto di espressione e di condivisione di tutti, non si è minimamente preoccupato di tutelare gli altri diritti (quelli fondamentali) degli utenti.
E così, la crescita esponenziale, legata alla rendita economica di Facebook e all'implementazione dei new feed, è diventata ingovernabile (come lo è, del resto, ogni crescita esponenziale) e ha fatto perdere la giusta rotta ai vertici della società.
I vertici di Facebook, pur di non rinunciare ai proventi, hanno indotto "le persone a rinunciare alla propria autonomia", facendo sì che insieme a Google diventassero dei "monopoli con né la volontà né l'inclinazione a proteggere la società dalle conseguenze delle loro azioni."

L'intento, apparentemente innocente, di mettere in comunicazione le persone ha un rovescio nero della medaglia: quello cioè di trarre il massimo profitto da quelle stesse persone.

A noi utenti l'onere di usare questi mezzi in modo più consapevole e meno selvaggio.
Pensa e poi pensa e poi pensa ancora e ancora e ancora, prima di condividere, se proprio non puoi fare a meno di Facebook.
E se riesci a farne a meno, cancellati.

[Nota a margine, Viva Twitter, con le stesse precauzioni di pensare bene a cosa si condivide.]
Profile Image for Alex Fernández.
34 reviews268 followers
December 28, 2021
Una investigación que en ciertos momentos parece ficción y en otros terror. Un bonito recordatorio que aunque Facebook diga que su objetivo es conectarnos y mandarnos memes, en el fondo, es un negocio que busca crecer, controlar y amasar poder sin importar a quién se lleve de corbata.
Profile Image for Keith Swenson.
Author 15 books50 followers
July 29, 2021
What the ***** was Zuckerberg thinking when he decided that a president has a special dispensation to spread misinformation and posts designed to motivate people to violence? Well, this book does a pretty good job of covering the background and providing a good understanding of the options available.

Zuckerberg, always a proponent of free speech, figured that the lies would be recognized as such, and that people would sort out the truth. I think we all had this delusion. Nobody expected a president to run an effective campaign to brazenly manipulate a democratic vote to stay in power. And nobody anticipated a person with a mastery of social media to form the kind of cult of personality that Trump has. Indeed social medial played a role. Zuckerberg and Sandberg unwittingly also played a role.

An Ugly Truth is a well written accounting of the background of Facebook, as it evolved through the the introduction of social media to culture, and up to the crisis on 2016. The writers researched it well, and the story is told in an engaging way.

I personally think we will look back on the 20-teens as a time when people engaged in "unsafe social media" sort of like smoking in the 1960's. What were we thinking? We need "protection" but we currently have no idea what that protection will be. Will a fact-checker do the trick? But how do you know that your fact checker is not a fake fact-checker?

The story is not over. Now Facebook has banned Trump, but what will stand as the policy? What is the right thing to do for other questionable politicians? Does this kind of ban represent a loss of free speech? How can we guarantee open discussion, without the danger of the brain washing algorithms? The book does not have these answers, but I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the background and the setting that we find ourselves in. Very interesting, and very timely.
1,273 reviews42 followers
June 2, 2022
Mark and Sheryl apologise for wrongs committed. Pledge to do better and don’t. Because they are greedy, and adept at wrapping themselves in the flag of personality while stomping on the corpse of reason.

The business is selling the user, getting them angry enough that they spend more time writing angry rants or responding to these so they can sell more data.

The book doesn’t cover much new ground but does show how banal corporate greed justifies damage. Their side helping of hypocrisy was tough to stomach.
Profile Image for Dan Connors.
332 reviews45 followers
October 21, 2021

When I signed up for Facebook back in 2007, I thought it was the best thing ever. All in one place I could contact people from anywhere in the world, while finding people from my past who I'd lost touch with. I could see interesting content from a variety of places that never seemed to run out, and best of all it was 100% free.

Well, it turns out Facebook was never free. The company has made billions of dollars selling my and other people's information to advertisers so that they could learn more and more about me and addict me to their products and content. This book, An Ugly Truth, tells the dirty inside story of Facebook as seen from two professional New York Times journalists. Facebook has been the subject of several books and has been much in the news lately, and reading this book gave me a clearer picture of what they've been up to.

Facebook, which started in 2004 as a college project to rate hot women, has grown to nearly 3 Billion monthly users, which is nearly half of the planet. It's gotten that big because of its easy setup and addictive content. The Facebook algorithm, or computer code, is able to know humans better than they know themselves, and get them to expose personal data while spending hours on the site. Facebook's newsfeed, a never ending scroll of misinformation, cat memes, news about relatives, and advertising, has been tweaked and analyzed to the point where it can entertain us and hold our valuable attention for an endless amount of time.

This book paints a disturbing picture of the two people most responsible for Facebook's rise in power and its abuse of that power. Mark Zuckerberg, the company's founder, is still tightly in charge of Facebook, and the book paints him as a sheltered nerdy billionaire, who has spent most of his life either in wealthy private schools or expensive Silicon Valley enclaves. Zuckerberg claims to be a super-connector who wants to unite the world, and he shies away from any conflicts that would make Facebook responsible for the content on its site. He seems to be clueless about all the controversy that his company has been associated with, and his single-minded pursuit has always been in higher and higher profits and more people spending more time on his site.

The second star of the book, Sheryl Sandberg, is Zuckerberg's number 2 and the company's chief operating officer. Sandberg was hired in 2008 and has been more of the public relations face of the company, though she has little power in any of the major decisions. An Ugly Truth makes her look like a feminist who talks a good game, but ultimately falls in line and apologizes for the many scandals that the company has had to weather.

The book devotes considerable time to three of Facebook's major scandals:

1- Russians were found to have created fake accounts in 2016 and paid Facebook hundreds of thousands to spread lies in the form of political advertisements. Facebook claims that they have no responsibility to fact check political ads, which is why so many of them are deceptive and effective. Zuckerberg seemed to have no awareness of the Russian involvement when it was going on, only finding out after the election and downplaying its impact.

2- A company, Cambridge Analytica, used online surveys through the Facebook app to gather personal information about millions of US users before the 2016 election. This information, which was not sold nor available to the public, was weaponized and turned into targeted political ads.

3- Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, experienced a near genocide in 2017 after the popular platform was used to spread hate speech and lies about the minority Rohingya Muslim population. Some 24,000 people were killed and another 700,000 left the country. Myanmar has over 100 different languages and Facebook was woefully unprepared to monitor the hate speech that led to this tragedy.

Mark Zuckerberg has been called in front of congress numerous times, and part of the problem has been that the US Senate is filled with elderly Senators who don't understand how the internet works, much less how it should be regulated. He left up a doctored video that appeared to show Nancy Pelosi drunk, and gave Donald Trump plenty of leeway when he spread lies during a pandemic and incited racial hatred with things like "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." Though some in congress have threatened to regulate or break up Facebook, the company has gotten through its scandals stronger and richer, and has little reason to fear politicians, many of whom get generous donations to their campaigns.

One of the more dangerous inventions of Facebook recently has been Facebook groups. Advertised heavily as places for like-minded people to get together and talk about music or hobbies, groups have also become a dark place for conspiracy-minded people to gather and spread disinformation. The worst of these is the Q-Anon conspiracy, that has enticed millions of Americans to join thousands of Facebook groups that promote wild conspiracies that have no basis in the real world. Since 2020, Facebook has started removing groups related to Q-Anon, but because of the low visibility of many of the groups to non-members, not even they know what's going on in these secretive groups. The January 6th insurrection has been tied to Facebook groups, and there are worries that even worse terrorist attacks could emanate from these dark corners.

All you need to know about Facebook's algorithm is in the chapter about the 2020 election. After the election, Facebook tweaked the algorithm to favor legitimate news over what they know to be fake news. They did this on purpose because the nation was on edge over the close election. But after a week of the "nice" algorithm they noticed that usage was going down, and slowly switched back to the "mean" algorithm. Mean content and outrage is what has made Facebook what it is today.

This is the main problem exposed by this book, by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, and by thousands of other critics of the popular platform. Lies and outrage create engagement, clicks and profits. Niceness and accuracy are boring, and people eventually drift away to something more enticing. This problem isn't unique to Facebook- all of the news outlets struggle with the urge to sensationalize and exaggerate complicated stories to gain viewers and ad dollars. Facebook is in the crosshairs because they've become so powerful and influential- enough so that they threated the very idea of democracy itself.

Mark Zuckerberg isn't standing still. His next plans include changing the name of the company and creating a metaverse- a virtual reality where people can meet up and create their own worlds. He wants to merge the worlds of online gaming with online socializing, with few guardrails on what people come up with. Based on the addictive nightmare that Facebook has already created- families destroyed as members to go down rabbit holes of extremism, teenagers to falling into depression, and hate speech and disinformation spreading like wildfire, I'm not optimistic.

I recommend reading this book, but will continue to use Facebook until I find a better alternative out there. (If you have one you can recommend, let me know.) I just advise people to be very careful about what content you explore on Facebook and what information you share on the platform, because "the algorithm" is smarter and more powerful than any of us can imagine.

Profile Image for Leigh.
17 reviews10 followers
July 20, 2021
If you’ve read the news over the last decade, you’ve read 90% of what’s included in this book. The authors offer almost no guidance on what to do about the many problems Facebook faces - election interference, misinformation, privacy, audience manipulation, and corporate governance. Fairly disappointing.
Profile Image for Alexandru.
260 reviews18 followers
November 6, 2022
A fantastic book showing how Zuckerberg and Facebook are willing to do anything in the name of growth and increased user engagement even if that means death, chaos and the destruction of democracy.

The book focuses on the actions of Zuckerberg and his second in command Sheryl Sandberg as they work to turn Facebook into the greatest social media company and a power player in world affairs and covers the period from the early days of facebook to about 2021.

Zuckerberg is named as one of the most powerful persons in the world in the book and it is not far away from the truth. Basically, everything that happens at Facebook is subject to Zuckerberg's approval. The book also deals with Zuckerberg's and Facebook's political games as they lobby both the political parties and hire both Democrat and Republican lobbyists in order to push their agenda in Washington. Zuckerberg favoured Trump while he was in the White House in order to avoid being regulated, he visited him several times at the White House. After Trump's loss he changed his tune and started lobbying the Biden White House.

The terrible examples of Facebook's appalling behaviour include:

- When Facebook launched in Burma it was widely adopted by the population en masse, phones were being sold with Facebook preinstalled and the word Facebook and internet became interchangeable. It was used by the military and the regime to create a fake news narrative against the Rohingya minority. The fake news was spread in order to generate hate towards the group and justify the ongoing genocide against them. Facebook did nothing about this and didn't even have the ability to because they only had one Burmese speaking moderator covering country of 54 million.

Burmese soldiers were committing massacres of the Rohingya people and then putting the images on Facebook. War crime investigators requested help from Facebook to track the soldiers committing war crimes using all of the data collected by the company. This had been used successfully in the US to find and arrest child molesters. However, Facebook refused to hand over this data stating concerns about the privacy of the soldiers. They stated that they would only release the data if they were forced by the United Nations.

- Facebook had known in advance about the Russian attempt to interfere in the US elections in 2016. They could see all of the fake and Russian troll accounts spreading disinformation and they could even see the Russian accounts sending fake and leaked information to American journalists. However, they chose not to disclose this information to the US authorities.

- The Facebook algorithms favour negative news as they produce more engagement. Tests were done on users, one group received more positive news while another received more negative news. The ones that received the negative news, fake news and conspiracy theories became more engaged and stayed more on the platform.

Thus, Facebook favoured the creation of private and polarising groups. Zuckerberg himself spearheaded the creation of the private user groups which ended up being hotbeds of extremism and conspiracy. Initially Zuckerberg defended his actions and protected the rights of free speech even if he didn't agree with the opinions but even he was surprised around 2020 that the Facebook groups he created were causing more and more young people to become Holocaust deniers and anti-semites.

During the 2020 election Facebook decided to modify their algorithms so that conspiracy theories and fake news were no longer pushed to the top of people's newsfeeds. This had a beneficial effect and for a week the platform became far less toxic. However, after the election the old algorithms were turned back on because the less toxic ones resulted in less engagement and hence less revenue.

This book is essential for anyone wanting to understand the nefarious nature of Facebook. It is not a history of the social network itself but rather of the steps taken by the company and its founder to grow and to stay relevant.
Profile Image for Yi.
73 reviews
July 24, 2021
Nothing but a laundry list of past criticisms from NY Times organized chronologically. The book doesn’t add any new arguments or insights to current conversation, nor does it dive deeper to understand and discuss the tech powering content moderation. The bottom line is just Facebook is evil because its core algorithm is evil.
Profile Image for Lucas.
362 reviews29 followers
August 2, 2021
Obviously a lot of Facebook is just people posting pictures saying “look at me, look at this beer I’m drinking at this restaurant with this dog”, but there is also a real danger in this platform. The issue is not that the vast majority of people in the world are inherently awful, but that the vast majority of people (including me) are prone to some level of thought manipulation, and a social network like Facebook gives a small minority of baneful actors “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (to quote Sacha Baron Cohen). The cost of that has already played out all over the world, so even if it’s not the majority of what happens on Facebook, it’s fair to make it the entire subject of this book.

I can acknowledge that a lot of good happens on Facebook and even sympathize more than most with the general impossibility of creating some perfect algorithm that deletes everything fake or malicious immediately. But when Zuckerburg makes decisions to just throw his hands up and not even try, like he did when he decided political ads wouldn’t be subject to fact checking, it’s hard to defend.

I also think it’s hard to read this book and not acknowledge the role capitalism plays in all this. This entire ethos of “Talk about how you want to make the world a better place but actually pursue growth at any cost” is not just what capitalism rewards, but basically what it demands? In one story in the book, they literally do an experiment labeling things “good for the world” and “bad for the world”, then prove that they have the ability to demote “bad for the world” content in the News Feed, and Zuckerburg says no because the “good for the world” content results in shorter session lengths from users. Even if the reporters got the reasoning for that decision wrong, it speaks to the general decision making hierarchy going on here, where Zuckerburg will monitor metrics like “do users think Facebook is good for the world” and “do users think Facebook cares about them”, but those are always secondary metrics below growing engagement, even if that means amplifying divisive and dishonest content.

And his tunnel visioned pursuit of growth while being willfully naive about the implications to the world continues to be financially rewarded. Companies that buy ads on Facebook have done a few notable boycotts, but ultimately as this most recent Q2 2021 Earnings Call showed, they’re going to keep buying ads from Facebook, even as the price goes up, because it’s just a much more effective way to sell to targeted users than placing an ad in the New York Times.

In regard to this book itself, if you’ve kept up with the stories in the news, there might not be a ton that is new, but I found it engaging and learned a lot. I think it is very impressive reporting, if they got it all right. There’s a lot of descriptions from very private meetings that must have been incredibly hard to get and hats off to the authors for doing that work.

I feel like they got Zuckerburg generally correct, but am less sure about the depiction of Sheryl Sandberg. As Kim Elsesser in Forbes pointed out, the quotes in the book “call (Sandberg) out for behavior that would likely go unnoticed if it came from a male leader”, including yelling, not befriending every single female employee, being over prepared at a Congressional hearing, etc. The authors also portray her as afraid to challenge Zuckerburg and clinging to her power as second in command, a position which they allege she is losing. I could easily see Sandberg being more direct with Zuckerburg in one on one meetings, rather than the big meetings that the authors had sources in.
Profile Image for Catalina Tamayo Posada.
66 reviews8 followers
October 11, 2021
Este libro es una recopilación de entrevistas e investigaciones realizadas. Cuenta cómo Facebook ha permitido discursos de odio, violencia, polarización, entre otros, en nombre de la libertad de expresión, y como en muchos casos la plataforma ha servido para perpetrar genocidios como en el caso de Birmania.

Uno de los puntos más inquietantes fue todo lo relacionado con la campaña electoral de Trump, el escándalo de Cambridge Analítica y continua puesta en jaque de la plataforma por parte de Trump.

"La plataforma se cimienta en una dicotomía fundamental y tal vez irreconocible: su supuesta misión de mejorar la sociedad conectando a la gente a la vez que obtiene beneficios de ella"
Profile Image for Aj Sterkel.
796 reviews34 followers
December 13, 2021
This book is about the behind-the-scenes drama at Facebook and how the site misuses the data it collects from users. The book is mostly a history of the company from its founding until 2019-ish.

Don't read this book if you want to be happy. Facebook is an infuriating company. They spy on everything you do online and use that data to target specific ads at you. (That's how Facebook reads your mind. They know so much about you that they can predict what you need before you realize you need it.) Facebook has gotten in trouble many times for invading privacy and not keeping user data secure. They just apologize and keep misusing data, which is annoying.

The book also talks about misinformation and if Facebook has a responsibility to control it. The company is very reluctant to fact check posts or take down hateful content, which means they ignored warnings and looked the other way while Facebook misinformation fueled the mass murder of Muslims in Myanmar.

I guess I can't hate Facebook too much because they're in a no-win situation with misinformation. They're too big to check every post in every language. Then, there's the blurry lines between information and misinformation. Like, is satire misinformation because not everybody understands jokes? What about information that's true but worded in misleading ways? Should politicians be exempt from rules because it's important for voters to know what their leaders are thinking? Facebook can't win at managing misinformation, so users need be better about not sharing garbage.

For me, the most infuriating thing about Facebook is that they discovered how to create a happier, more factually accurate news feed. They chose not to use it because shock and outrage keep people on the site longer. Facebook's algorithm will keep boosting posts that make people hate each other because that's how Facebook makes money. They can serve you ads with your outrage.

I think Facebook's biggest problem is that they care about growth and money more than anything else. They'll eagerly treat Facebook users like lab rats if they can profit from it. The company is growing so fast that they can't keep up with the problems that come with rapid growth.

Okay, that's it. I'm done blathering about Facebook. Let's talk about the book for a second: If you've been following news about Facebook for years, then you probably won't learn a ton from reading An Ugly Truth. A lot of the information in the book has been reported on before. I still think you should read it, though. Clearly, I got a lot out of it. It's one of the most thought-provoking things I've read this year.
Profile Image for Julie.
344 reviews14 followers
September 22, 2021
I cannot imagine how anyone who reads this book could continue to use Facebook.
Profile Image for Jun Y.
63 reviews60 followers
November 25, 2021
Irrational Facebook hate? (a contrarian view)

The ugly truth was known all along -- Facebook would inevitably grow bigger and turn into something it wasn’t 10+ years ago, when things were simpler. People fear the power it has, the data grab and the freakish powers of the Facebook AI. But AI is already widespread.

The ugly part about Facebook is no longer Trump or politics, Trump who at this point is becoming irrelevant. (Trump might not even run in 2024, given his dismal chances). 2016 is history but social media is still being blamed as if it could be un-invented -- how different would Fb alternatives be?

Zuckerberg’s strategy is not to actively pursue good, which is practically impossible. It's not necessarily even profits, it is all about Reputation now. We shall see how that goes but Zuckerberg’s brand seems quite resilient so far.

People get annoyed at Facebook for understandable reasons -- totally innocent and reasonable posts being censored because Fb is beholden to certain interests, interests which could change overnight depending on which way the political / geopolitical winds blow. Just look at what they did to Covid discussion topics.

It's not in the natural course of things to get praised for good things you are already doing. We can argue about which side of the ledger Fb is on now -- the greed/ evil side or the neutral/ good side. For the latter, we tend to ignore the obvious benefits of instant connection with friends past and present and simply being able to get news conveniently. What is also less acknowledged these days is that Fb has been a vehicle for accelerating democratic progress and intellectual exchange, maybe not throughout the U.S. but certainly in many places elsewhere.

It’s not all ugly but I guess negativity sells.
Profile Image for Indira.
439 reviews
September 30, 2021
It is uglier than we might think. Really ugly. Excellent reporting and examination of how a company truly exploited emotion, capitalized on private data and created something from which there may be no return. The most tragic parts are those moments where they could have done "the right thing" but clearly chose not to. The legacy of this company, along with people who were complicit in moving the agenda of domination forward is so ugly.
Profile Image for David Dayen.
Author 5 books186 followers
August 18, 2021
Also will be part of an upcoming review. I have to say I didn't get much out of this book. A lot of it was "here's stuff we put in our news stories" and "here's a speech Zuckerberg or Sandberg gave that I was at." I also am starting to have real problems with the generated hysteria over speech. In general I think that Facebook's harms are completely misplaced in this book.
The "business profile" book has become such a trope that it's hard to pull away from it. I do sympathize.
Profile Image for Cindy.
997 reviews3 followers
October 27, 2021
This book evoked a mild form of PTSD for me, as it brings us back to the years preceding and through the presidency of #42 (He who must not be named). What an awful time that was, the results of which we still deal with today. More awful is how much FB could have done to tone things down…but didn’t. Both MZ and his CEO come off poorly in this well-researched accounting.
Profile Image for Tino.
235 reviews2 followers
February 6, 2022
A pretty good look into Facebook. While it probably didn’t uncover much new information previously unavailable, it did present a lot of information in an interesting and comprehensive style. Would recommend for anyone who is interested in Facebook, with or without previous knowledge of the matters. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Grant.
388 reviews5 followers
July 27, 2021
Frenkel and Kang have crafted a very solid book that deftly navigates a number of issues without getting bogged down in unnecessarily details. However, my struggle with this book is with scope. Do you evaluate a book strictly based on the scope its authors set, or is it fair to criticize a book for having too much focus?

An Ugly Truth thoroughly succeeds in all the areas you would expect, and it's an evenhanded critique that shows examples of Silicon Valley ignorance and arrogance through the actions of one of its most dominant behemoths. The book hits all the major plot points one would expect given its historical focus, and even though many of these incidents are familiar, the book will still serve as a helpful recap and help shade in some of the details that contemporaneous coverage may have lacked. Sheryl Sandberg now feels a lot more three-dimensional to me, and the book also fleshes out Facebook's rogue's gallery of top ranking executives, notably Kaplan. It helpfully points out the company's relentless lobbying in Washington and how it kowtowed to right wing interests and failed on diversity even while presenting a sunny California image. The writing is straightforward, conversational without being too casual, and nicely narrated in the audiobook version.

For better or worse (mostly better), it reads like what you'd expect from New York Times reporters.

That is also where the problems come in, as does the question of scope.

Politically [to me as a left-of-centre Canadian], this book is what I expect from New York Times reporters. There's a little too much emphasis on Russiagate, and not enough willingness to engage with some of the broader problems of Silicon Valley, venture capital, and surveillance capitalism. Obviously that's a lot of ground to cover, and people like Shoshana Zuboff or Rana Foroohar, among others, have written thorough books about the industry. Facebook is only one of the tech giants, but it's still an example of many of its vices and worst problems. The book is a little reticent to call out many of the ways the company mistreats workers, such as the horrible conditions and lack of mental health support faced by many (subcontracted) content moderators that have been well-documented in other publications. While Facebook's WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions are nicely discussed, there isn't much coverage of how it liberally photocopies features from competitors in attempts to kill them, such as the thievery of Snapchat's stories feature, or more recent mimicry of Substack and Clubhouse, etc.

It's a good book, but it's just not as pugilistic as I think we should want our tech coverage to be in 2021. Forget WhatsApp and Instagram antitrust: should companies like this even exist? But that may be a matter of this book being a work of journalism rather than of criticism.
Profile Image for Kristina.
879 reviews4 followers
August 30, 2021
Want to read something super rage-inducing? Well, have I got the book for you! An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination charts the Facebook's growth and high profile mistakes over primarily the later Obama and Trump presidencies. The highlights I was pretty aware of when news broke of leaks (Cambridge Analytica), privacy concerns, when Zuckerberg testified before Congress, its role in international violence (Myanmar), and their complicity with the Russian hacks in politics. While Zuckerberg's face is cover of the book, if one flips it over, Sheryl Sandberg's face is on the other side. The authors really focus on both of their flaws and systemic issues with the company and its leadership/mission.

A emblematic example of the culture of Facebook is that Sandberg's conference room is called "Only Good News." Leadership does not want to hear about problems, and they are not proactive with addressing potential issues that can arise from their software. There is a divide between the engineers (Zuckerberg's side) and the business side (Sandberg's side) and the sides appear to be quite territorial/fractured. Mark appears unwilling to take part in topics that don't interest him, leading to him being SHOCKED when things happen he is not clued in on. Facebook tends to see issues as one-offs, and fix them as they come in, and not systemic problems to address. The willful ignorance on the consequences of their work is infuriating. The company comes across as just not caring about the ramifications of their program, and more concerned with growing their reach and the time people spend on their website. I am 0% upset about leaving Facebook years ago. Super toxic.
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