Critic's Notebook: 'Frontline' Doc 'The Facebook Dilemma' May Scare You Off Social Media

Courtesy of REUTERS/ Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

The two-part 'Frontline' special presents a chilling portrait of a social media behemoth that cares more about profits than its users' privacy.

If you're reading this article, you've presumably taken a break from logging on to Facebook to catch up with such important developments as your cousin's recent trip to Disney World. But if you really want to end your addiction to the social media monolith, watch the two-part Frontline documentary The Facebook Dilemma, airing Monday and Tuesday night on PBS. If this deeply disturbing investigative report doesn't scare you straight, nothing will.

Directed by James Jacoby, the film recounts how Facebook's success at connecting the world has come at a very high cost. In the old days before the internet, people would get their information from reputable print and broadcast media that was actually curated and edited. Now the vast majority get the news from a website that takes almost no responsibility for what it spews into the world. Say what you will about The New York Times and CNN, but unless Dean Baquet and Jeff Zucker are Manchurian Candidates, Russia hasn't managed to infiltrate, either.

"They took over the role of editing without the responsibility of editing," says one journalist about the company, which showed far more interest in rapid growth and ballooning profits than the accuracy or veracity of what is put on the site. The interviews with five current Facebook executives who agreed to be contacted for the documentary don't provide much reassurance. You won't find an Edward R. Murrow or William Shawn among them. They instead project all the gravitas of college dorm hallway monitors.

The documentary chronicles the meteoric rise of the company, beginning with vintage footage of a baby-faced Zuckerberg proudly showing off its first office equipped with tables from IKEA. Cut to Facebook employees celebrating crossing the billion active-user mark. "I don't think Mark is going to stop until he gets to everybody," one former executive recalls thinking.

It was the company's News Feed, generated by a proprietary algorithm and described by an interview subject as "the secret sauce," that truly propelled its growth. The use of the "Like" button became crucial to its main source of income, which is to gather and exploit as much of its users' data as possible.

Facebook took a libertarian approach to the information presented on the site, relying, as a former employee puts it, on "the public's common decency." That worked for a while, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring uprisings for which the company took a victory lap. But the dark side of unlimited access soon manifested itself, as the site was exploited by nefarious forces to create divisiveness and spread misinformation (you may know the latter as "fake news"). A former exec describes how the understaffed corporation employed a team of mostly twentysomethings to determine what speech was appropriate and what wasn't, with practically no time to deliberate.

Even while company executives were publicly talking about how Facebook valued and aimed to protect its users' privacy, they were figuring new ways to monetize the personal data they were collecting. The pressure for profitability became particularly intense during the period leading up to the company going public. We see footage of an increasingly flustered Zuckerberg answering questions about privacy concerns during a public forum, with sweat beginning to pour off his face. "I thought he was going to faint," the journalist who interviewed him recalls.

The documentary includes an interview with a former junior manager who says that he was put in charge of the company's privacy issues. When asked how he felt about being given the responsibility, he says, "I was horrified. I didn't think I was qualified." He adds that he made several proposals addressing the issue to top executives, but that they were more concerned with the impending IPO.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department became increasingly worried about the security lapses inherent in social media that allowed it to be weaponized. And it had good reason to be concerned, with Russia and other countries increasingly using it for their own purposes. A good amount of the disinformation, which included a news story about the Pope endorsing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump that went viral, emanated from, of all places, Macedonia. Things only became worse in the lead-up to the 2016 election with the proliferation of hyper-partisan Facebook pages. "The very things that divide us most cause the most engagement," an analyst points out. After Trump was elected, Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook didn't have any impact on the election. Later, of course, he announced that political-oriented disinformation had been traced to sources linked with the Russian government.

The documentary details to chilling effect how Facebook is exploited by Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to harm his enemies and how it plays a significant role in the ethnic violence and genocide in Myanmar. It also briefly touches on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg's subsequent deer-in-the-headlights testimony before Congress.

When pressed, all of the current Facebook executives interviewed admit that the company was "too slow" to address the vital issues, carefully adhering to the obvious approved talking point. One says that in the future she's intent on "amplifying the good and minimalizing the bad," which sounds more like a fortune-cookie adage than a carefully thought-out plan of action. Another says that we needn't worry about outside interference in the upcoming election, because the company has "a team" that will be dealing with the issue on Election Day.

God help us all.