Facebook scrambles to distance itself from leaked memo

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Facebook is scrambling to respond to its latest crisis, the publication of a leaked memo in which a company executive argued that the company’s growth is justified at any cost.

Critics say that the controversial 2016 memo is further injuring the public’s trust in Facebook at a time when Facebook is already under heavy scrutiny. 

{mosads}Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg apologized on Thursday night after BuzzFeed reported on the memo from Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth. In the memo, Bosworth said that the company’s expansion is warranted even if it “costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies” or “someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends,” Bosworth wrote.

Lawmakers have already been scrutinizing Facebook over how research firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked on the Trump campaign, took data from 50 million users. They were quick to seize on the new revelations from the memo.

“Death from bullying cannot be the cost of doing business. Terrorist attacks cannot be the cost of doing business,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) tweeted on Friday

“It is @facebook’s moral obligation to maintain the integrity and safety of their platform. When they fail to do so, Congress must act,” he wrote.

Experts think the controversy over Facebook’s memo will have an impact that goes beyond Capitol Hill. 

Jason Kint, CEO of the media trade association Digital Content Next, argued the memo shows that problems Facebook is dealing with are not just minor missteps. Instead, he said, they reflect major flaws ingrained within the company’s top employees. 

“The language in that memo was dismissive of the bad [impacts of Facebook]. And in the context of a company with more extraordinary power and influence to spread information it’s just terrible to have a senior executive expressing that,” Kint said.

Bosworth claimed in a statement that he never agreed with the sentiment of his message. Instead, he claimed it was meant to be “provocative” and said the debate it produced “ultimately helped shape [Facebook’s] tools for the better.”

Zuckerberg said that Facebook supported Bosworth’s memo.

“Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We’ve never believed the ends justify the means,” Zuckerberg said.

Kevin Carty, a researcher at Open Markets Institute, a think tank that focuses on antitrust issues, said that even if Bosworth’s comments are taken in good faith, they show that Facebook doesn’t need to care about public perception.

“Facebook is so big that they can do whatever they want. They can say whatever and it won’t affect their bottom line. They know no one will leave,” Carty said.

He believes that the memo is the latest example of a news story that’s turning the public against Facebook.

“The memo is another step, along with Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, that are all slowly turning Facebook into a corporation that the public is distrustful of, like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase or Walmart,” he said.

The social media giant previously enjoyed broad public support and the backing of Washington, D.C., politicians. But now, public trust in Facebook is fading, and lawmakers have the company in their crosshairs after more than a year of controversy over Russian election meddling on the platform.  

“Facebook isn’t a company, it’s a country. It’s big and it’s powerful. We need to learn more about the extent of its power, the extent of its data, who it shares its data with,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in March. 

Facebook will have to answer to lawmakers directly on these issues. Two congressional committees have already invited Zuckerberg to testify before Congress, and others plan to invite him. The Facebook CEO has reportedly decided that he will make the trip to Capitol Hill to face lawmakers’ questions. 

“I would absolutely expect them to read that memo and ask what [Zuckerberg] and [Facebook Chief Operating Officer] Sheryl [Sandberg’s] reaction was and what steps were taken at that time to make certain this senior executive’s perspective was understood to be the wrong one,” Kint said.

Tags Edward Markey John Kennedy Mark Zuckerberg

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