It’s the supporting characters who really sell a drama. Yesterday’s New York Times investigation of Facebook’s culture of negligence, malfeasance, and cover-ups was carried along by the lead performances of a feckless Mark Zuckerberg and a monstrous Sheryl Sandberg:
While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation.
The figure in the story who left an indelible image of the company’s poisonousness and amorality was not the founder or the CEO, though, but one of their underlings: “Joel Kaplan, who had attended Harvard with Ms. Sandberg and later served in the George W. Bush administration.”
Kaplan is the company’s vice president for corporate public policy, and before yesterday, he had been in the news mostly for showing up to support his friend Brett Kavanaugh at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. When Facebook employees complained about his having been there, right-wingers took it as more evidence of out-of-control tech-industry bias against them.
The Times account, though, suggests that rather than being oversensitive, the rank and file ought to have been a lot angrier about him a lot sooner. Kaplan comes across in the story as a combination Zelig and Iago, popping up at each crucial juncture to give harmful and cynical advice.
The worst is the earliest, when the Times describes Zuckerberg wondering in 2015 if Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims had violated Facebook’s terms of service, and should therefore be removed:
Mr. Kaplan argued that Mr. Trump was an important public figure and that shutting down his account or removing the statement could be seen as obstructing free speech, said three employees who knew of the discussions. He said it could also stoke a conservative backlash.
“Don’t poke the bear,” Mr. Kaplan warned.
What to make of a warning not to poke the bear, when it’s delivered by a professional bear advocate? It functions as less of a disembodied warning (“could be seen as”) than a threat. And it changes the object of concern from Muslims—targeted for exclusion from the country, because of their religious and cultural origins—to the political faction that wanted to keep them out.
Facebook’s size and monopoly give it the ability to construct entire worlds, whose influence then leaks back out into the real world. In Kaplan, it was delegating that world-building to a political operative, with political goals. When it became clear that those influences had included Russia’s efforts to tilt the 2016 election, the Times reported, Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, wanted to report that publicly.
But Mr. Kaplan and other Facebook executives objected. Washington was already reeling from an official finding by American intelligence agencies that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, had personally ordered an influence campaign aimed at helping elect Mr. Trump.
If Facebook implicated Russia further, Mr. Kaplan said, Republicans would accuse the company of siding with Democrats. And if Facebook pulled down the Russians’ fake pages, regular Facebook users might also react with outrage at having been deceived: His own mother-in-law, Mr. Kaplan said, had followed a Facebook page created by Russian trolls.
Ms. Sandberg sided with Mr. Kaplan, recalled four people involved. Mr. Zuckerberg — who spent much of 2017 on a national “listening tour,” feeding cows in Wisconsin and eating dinner with Somali refugees in Minnesota — did not participate in the conversations about the public paper. When it was published that April, the word “Russia” never appeared.
As with Trump’s anti-Muslim posting, the winning argument was not about the actual stakes, but the symbolic and reputational ones. Better that Kaplan’s mother-in-law be unwittingly manipulated by propaganda than that she be allowed to learn not to trust Facebook.