Now that Facebook Inc.'s boss has finally responded to the company's latest controversy, I can't help wondering why Facebook spent the previous five days saying little, or saying the wrong things, before it spoke out relatively cogently.
Finally, I had realization: Facebook is George Costanza. In a well-known episode of the Seinfeld television series, the hapless fictional character settles on an explanation for his unhappiness: "Every instinct I have in every aspect of life ... it's all been wrong."
Yup, that's Facebook.
Before the firestorm over Cambridge Analytica's siphoning of information from millions of Facebook accounts -- and even before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit vote swept the company into a series of scandals -- one constant has been Facebook's inept response to crises. Because of this, I have privately been referring to Facebook as the world's dumbest smart company. Almost every instinct it has is wrong.
The company's first response to the Cambridge Analytica revelations was to front-run news reports it knew were coming. Then, a Facebook executive fixated on what he said were news outlets' improper use of words like "leak" and "breach." Left unsaid was anything about Facebook's role in a significant violation of users' trust. The company further fanned controversy internally and externally by not saying much after that and not dispatching Zuckerberg to speak before Wednesday.
But this was hardly the first time Facebook did the wrong thing. Here is just a partial accounting of flare-ups that Facebook made much worse by responding ineptly or not at all, or engaging in denial:
- It tried forcefully and awkwardly for months to persuade skeptical Indian regulators and the public to accept a suite of free internet services in the country, including some of its own offerings. Facebook eventually gave up in 2015.
- Facebook got into a feud with the prime minister of Norway over the company's censoring of an iconic Vietnam War photo. Facebook stuck to its guns for too long and was eventually forced to apologize.
- When a news article raised questions about whether Facebook suppressed right-leaning articles in the social network's "trending" news section, the company at first denied or minimized the allegations, then fired staff, sought to root out leakers and took other steps that exacerbated what became a full-blown culture war.
- And then came the U.S. presidential election, during which Russia-backed trolls used Facebook to spread misinformation and divisive messages. The company came clean in slow, halting stages after Zuckerberg's memorable initial statement that it was a "pretty crazy idea" to believe misinformation on Facebook had influenced the election. That flippant initial reaction will dog Zuckerberg forever.
Missteps or wrong decisions are inevitable for companies like Facebook that have grown so large so quickly. But Facebook's instinct seems to be to minimize every controversy or to lash out, obfuscate, deflect, keep mum and perhaps belatedly do (almost) the right thing.
And that has turned repeated mini-firestorms into conflagrations. It's easy to blame public-relations strategies for Facebook's missteps, but this is such a flagrant pattern that it must be a sign of culture rot at the top of the company.
Maybe it's time for Facebook to take the advice from George Costanza's friend Jerry: "If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right."
-- Shira Ovide, Bloomberg News
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