On 20 December last, Andrew Bosworth, a long-time Facebook executive and buddy of the company’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, published a longish memo on the company’s internal network. The New York Times somehow obtained a copy and reported it on 7 January, which led Mr Bosworth then to publish it to the world on a Facebook page. In one of those strange coincidences that mark a columnist’s life, I happened to be reading his memo at the same time that I was delving into the vast trove of internal emails released by the Boeing Company in connection with congressional and other inquiries into the 737 Max disaster. Both sources turn out to have one interesting thing in common – the insight they provide into the internal culture of two gigantic, dysfunctional companies.
Trump got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. PeriodAndrew Bosworth
The Boeing trove consists largely of email exchanges between the engineers working on the 737 Max. They confirm that employees knew about the chronic problems with the plane’s design and were aware of the extent to which the Federal Aviation Administration was in the dark about them. Some of the exchanges are graphic. In one – on 16 November 2016 – an employee flying the Max simulator reports that the MCAS autopilot software, which is believed to have caused the two fatal crashes of the plane, is continually frustrating his attempts to control it. “It’s running rampant in the sim [simulator] on me,” he emails a colleague. “I’m levelling off at like 4,000 feet and the plane is trimming itself like crazy.” This is the behaviour that the pilots on the two doomed flights experienced: they kept on trying to keep the nose up while the software continually overrode them and turned it down. And people within the company knew about it three years earlier.
When Boeing releases a flawed product on to the market, people die in terrifying accidents. I was going to say that when Facebook does the same, at least no one dies. But that’s not quite true, as survivors of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar can testify. Interestingly, Bosworth, who continually flaunts his “liberal” credentials, does not mention Myanmar in his memo, but focuses instead on the 2016 US presidential election, when he was head of Facebook’s advertising operation. He maintains that almost all media coverage of the company’s influence in that electoral contest (including our coverage) was misguided or uninformed. Cambridge Analytica were “snake-oil salespeople”, the Russians spent much less than the official campaigns, the power of micro-targeted advertising was overrated, etc, etc.
But was Facebook nevertheless responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? “I think the answer is yes,” says Bosworth, “but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.” Trump’s crowd apparently “did unbelievable work. They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying conflicting things to different people on the same topic. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person. The use of custom audiences, video, e-commerce and fresh creative remains the high-water mark of digital ad campaigns in my opinion.” Result: President Trump.
This brings Bosworth to the present moment, where Facebook’s advertising policies remain unchanged. “It occurs to me,” he burbles, “that it very well may lead to the same result. As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?”
There then follows some ludicrous flapdoodle about The Lord of the Rings and the philosopher John Rawls’s idea of considering such profound questions from behind a “veil of ignorance”. (I am not making this up.) This then leads to the conclusion that Bosworth should do nothing except ensure it is business as usual, even if that leads to Trump’s re-election.
And that’s OK, apparently, because if people are taken in by political propaganda then that’s their problem, just as people who become addicted to tobacco, sugar or opioids ultimately bear the responsibility for their plights. But, Bosworth continues, in a vein that really defies satire, “while Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation. At the end of the day, we are forced to ask what responsibility individuals have for themselves.”
So, ultimately, it’s not Facebook’s responsibility to, say, ban political advertising that is demonstrably misleading or malevolently false. This has the convenient result of enabling Bosworth to burnish his liberal credentials behind that Rawlsian veil while the money rolls in. There’s an old English word for this: hypocrisy. If he ever needs another job, I’m sure there’s a place for him at Boeing.
What I’m reading
There is a nice essay by John Kay on his blog about whether Adam Smith ever actually visited a pin factory (the economist used one to explain the division of labour in The Wealth of Nations). Answer: probably not, but it doesn’t matter because his sources were good.
Twitter ye not
An article about our recent election in the Atlantic declares “the Twitter electorate isn’t the real electorate”. I wish more journalists understood that.
There’s an interesting New York Times review of a new exhibition, arguing that “photography was Andy Warhol’s secret weapon”.