The most telling moment in “The Facebook Dilemma” — a two-part Frontline documentary — comes near the end, when the five Facebook employees made available for interviews all parrot the same talking point, acknowledging that the company was “too slow” to respond to manipulation of its algorithms. The moment betrays a grasp of crisis public relations, but the robotic echo makes pledges to fix the problem sound unconvincing.
In addition to those current representatives, Frontline hunts down nine former Facebook staffers, as well as a host of journalists and academics. Correspondent James Jacoby (working with the Washington Post’s Dana Priest) proceeds to meticulously document Facebook’s explosive growth — there are early clips of a very young CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pals — and its emphasis on the mantra to “move fast and break things.”
The problem, of course, is that Facebook expanded so rapidly the company was hard-pressed to keep pace with it. The opportunities to manipulate the platform, moreover, grew exponentially when Facebook forged a model that relied on harvesting user data, raising questions as to whether democracy was one of things “broken” in the bargain.
Naomi Gleit, one of the current Facebook officials interviewed, concedes the company was “slow to really understand the ways in which Facebook might be used for bad things.” What Facebook doesn’t adequately address is why, inasmuch as there were plenty of people sounding alarms who were by all accounts dismissed or ignored — practically “begging and pleading with the company, saying ‘Please pay attention to this,'” as University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci puts it.
Critically, “The Facebook Dilemma” goes beyond the well-documented concern about manipulation of the U.S. election and the massive leak of user data to the way Facebook has been weaponized abroad, including its use to trigger violence and lash out against political opposition in Myanmar and the Philippines.
Through it all, Zuckerberg — as the face of the company — has appeared resistant to fully recognize the enormous influence that Facebook wields, and perhaps most significantly, the responsibility that comes with that. While his commitment to an “open and connected” world sounds admirable, even idealistic, “The Facebook Dilemma” makes clear that those noble ambitions have run into a harsh reality.
Zuckerberg — shown testifying before Congress last April — has also balked at labeling Facebook a media company, but there’s no denying that the technology is shaping how media is disseminated, consumed and yes, manipulated. Nor is the controversy likely to end soon, with U.K. authorities recently fining Facebook for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“The Facebook Dilemma” doesn’t identify simple solutions to the challenges that Facebook now presents. But as a sobering documentary that pointedly frames the issues and lays out the stakes involved — to society as well as the company — it’s worth clicking “like.”
“The Facebook Dilemma” will air Oct. 29-30 at 9 p.m. on PBS.