Mark Zuckerberg: You Can Trust Me, or You Can Trust One of America's Most Respected Newspapers

By Tom McKay on at

Facebook’s scandals in recent memory have included reckless sharing of user data with third parties like the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica political firm, several high-profile security breaches, and continued abuse of its platforms to spread misinformation and propaganda during elections. Other even worse stuff has included its sluggish pace responding to widespread reports Facebook was playing a key role in the genocide in Myanmar, or investigations into how easily its ad tools can be abused for discriminatory purposes.

The company had yet another oopsie last week when a scathing New York Times report alleged that Facebook failed to take down Donald Trump’s infamous and blatantly racist call to ban Muslim entry to the US to avoid alienating conservatives, deliberately sought to suppress evidence of Russian meddling before the 2016 federal elections, and hired a GOP opposition research firm named Definers to dig up dirt on critics. The Times also wrote that Definers’ tactics included spreading conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist, Holocaust survivor, and recent bombing attempt target George Soros, alleging he was funding an anti-Facebook movement.

Just like after the Cambridge Analytica mess, this appears to have been enough for Facebook to once again program Zuckerberg with the company’s latest talking points and send him out to speak on TV.

In an interview with CNN Business on Tuesday, the Facebook CEO doubled down, citing the very relatable and normal human concepts of “world view” and “flavour” to suggest that perhaps the negative media coverage surrounding the company’s business practices was a bit unfair:

“A lot of the criticism around the biggest issues has been fair, but I do think that if we are going to be real, there is this bigger picture as well, which is that we have a different world view than some of the folks who are covering us,” Zuckerberg told CNN Business’ Laurie Segall at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

“There are big issues, and I’m not trying to say that there aren’t,” he said. “But I do think that sometimes, you can get the flavor from some of the coverage that that’s all there is, and I don’t think that that’s right either.”

Specifically, he suggested that the Times report was fake news, in so many words:

“It is not clear to me at all that the report is right,” he said. “A lot of the things that were in that report, we talked to the reporters ahead of time and told them that from everything that we’d seen, that wasn’t true and they chose to print it anyway.”

Zuckerberg also said that he stood by the decision to leave Trump’s Muslim ban post up, telling CNN “I think it’s very important that people have the opportunity to hear from what political leaders are saying” and that internal policies give “special deference” to newsworthy posts.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, behind closed doors Zuckerberg has been a little more feisty, referring to the Times report as “bullshit” and saying the leaks were the result of “bad morale” from constant media scrutiny of the company. The Journal wrote Zuckerberg had berated Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg about her handling of the Cambridge Analytica mess and review of “troublesome content” on the site, but had been more satisfied with her performance in recent months. However, it also reported that members of the company’s communications team are now furious Sandberg had allegedly thrown them under the Definers bus:

Ms. Sandberg’s comments in particular have angered many people on those teams, according to people familiar with the matter, given how closely she tracked and managed Facebook’s media strategy, sometimes getting involved in wording changes. In the internal QA Friday, Ms. Sandberg said she took full responsibility for the actions of the communications team.

In the CNN interview, Zuckerberg denied that he had any plans to step down as chairman of Facebook’s board, and he also said that he hopes he and Sandberg “work together for decades more to come.” He also had a rosy assessment of Facebook’s global growth, saying “There are certainly going to be issues that we need to work through over time, but I think that while we are doing that, we can’t lose sight of all of the really positive things that are happening here as well.”

In other words, you can trust Mark Zuckerberg or you can trust the New York Times. But while making your decision, perhaps keep in mind that one of these choices is desperate to preserve a multi-billion-dollar company’s business model amid a precipitous plunge in its stock prices, while the other is a 167-year-old newspaper whose coverage has won 125 Pulitzer Prizes. Oh, and that Zuckerberg’s defence against the Definers thing was that he wasn’t actually aware what was going on until after those reporters.

As CNN noted, the Times has stood behind the report, saying it was based on interviews with “more than 50 sources including current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members.” [CNN]