Facebook ‘ugly truth’ memo reveals flaw in Silicon Valley growth culture

30 Mar 2018

Image: Beykov Maksim/Shutterstock

At what point must a company surrender its core values for the price of growth? Leaked Facebook memo has sparked a timely debate.

Facebook is being pummelled by another scandal that threatens to eclipse even the Cambridge Analytica affair, one that strikes at the heart of the creation of an online economy bigger than any other on Earth.

A memo defending Facebook’s growth through questionable contact-importing practices by one of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s staunchest allies, Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth, has once again thrown the cat among the pigeons.

‘So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools’

The memo, which was penned by Bosworth, a vice-president at Facebook, has been dubbed the ‘ugly truth memo’. It was never circulated beyond the Facebook perimeter until yesterday (29 March) when BuzzFeed published an exposé.

The memo adopted an ‘end justifies the means’ approach to ensure future growth at the social network.

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact-importing practices,” Bosworth wrote.

“All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

“So we connect more people,” Bosworth wrote in another section of the memo. “That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

Does the end justify the means?

The memo’s revelation comes on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica story about how a political consultancy firm was able to use a third-party app to game the social network into yielding up to 50m profiles. These users may have been susceptible to attempts to swing vital votes in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in Britain in 2016.

It also reveals an inner conflict at Facebook, whereby executives were uneasy about the company’s growth tactics and ethics.

Bosworth, a member of Zuckerberg’s inner circle, is known for his outspoken and blunt comments.

In a Twitter post yesterday, he said that the memo did not reflect his personal views but was aimed at provoking debate within the social network.

In hindsight, he admitted it was not one of his most popular posts within the Facebook ranks.

The memo that Bosworth wrote was penned in June 2016 following the shooting of Antonio Perkins, a 28-year-old man who was killed while live-streaming on Facebook Live.

Indeed, Zuckerberg’s initial dismissal of claims that fake news and Russian meddling may have in any way influenced Trump’s shock election in the US later that year was understood to have led to an inner rebellion at the social network by engineers who disputed this.

Overall, the emergence of the memo in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica affair is sure to spark further debate about the moral compass of Silicon Valley tech firms, which are striving to assuage the growth expectations of Wall Street.

In recent years, the growth of a negative culture in Silicon Valley, the recklessness at which vast hordes of data are being gathered, not to mention the lack of diversity and inclusion, has been highlighted by various commentators.

But, largely, this appears to fall on deaf ears in the ivory towers.

Until now.

The latest memo leak – even if it was an internal communication devised to provoke much-needed soul-searching – reveals that the unease is real and moral compunction is rising in the Valley.

It is clear workers are uneasy about contact-importing tactics and methods. Cambridge Analytica has shown how such methods can be gamed.

So, at what price must companies surrender their values to keep the growth machine humming?

Silicon Valley firms make a lot of noise about values, inclusion and culture. It is time they lived up to these ideals.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years