The Decline and Fall of the Zuckerberg Empire


Illustration: Nicolas Ortega

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the first person in human history to draw inspiration from Augustus Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire, but he’s one of a very few for whom the lessons of Augustus’s reign have a concrete urgency. Both men, after all, built international empires before the age of 33. “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace,” Zuckerberg explained to a New Yorker reporter earlier this year. “What are the trade-offs in that?” Augustus, Zuckerberg explained, “had to do certain things” to ensure the stability of his empire. So too, apparently, does Facebook.

A 6,000-word report published in the New York Times last week disclosed in humiliating detail the lengths to which Facebook has gone to protect its dominance and attack its critics. As various interlocking crises concerning hate speech, misinformation, and data privacy widened, top executives ignored, and then kept secret, evidence that the platform had become a vector for misinformation campaigns by government-backed Russian trolls. The company mounted a shockingly aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, which included creating and circulating pro-Facebook blog posts that were functionally indistinguishable from the “coordinated inauthentic content” (that is, fake news) Facebook had pledged to eliminate from its platform. In one particularly galling example, the company hired a political consultancy that spread a conspiracy theory accusing George Soros of funding anti-Facebook protests. Zuckerberg, it seems, had taken the “really harsh approach” to establishing digital hegemony.

Augustus, at least, was a charismatic leader and confident ruler. No one at Facebook comes across in the Times piece as a similarly bold visionary. Not Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s top lobbyist, who encouraged the company to suppress and hold back findings of Russian influence campaigns for fear of alienating Republicans. Not Chuck Schumer, who confronted one of the Senate’s top Facebook critics and told him to figure out how to work with the company. (Schumer’s daughter works for Facebook.) Not Sheryl Sandberg, the adult-in-the-room COO who presided over the entire suspicious and hostile crisis response. And certainly not Zuckerberg, who seems to have been consistently absent — or plainly uninterested — during key meetings about Facebook’s handling of hate speech and misinformation. It’s hard to be a historical visionary hailed for brokering stability by making morally complex decisions if you can’t even be bothered to show up to the Morally Complex Decisions meetings.

Demands for the CEO to abdicate, or to at least step down from his role as chairman of the board, have increased, but Zuckerberg — who controls 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares — is no more likely to resign than Augustus would have been. As the Wall Street Journal reports, he told company executives earlier this year that Facebook is at war. The trouble is that the war may have already been lost. Beset by stagnant growth, low employee morale, plummeting stock, public outrage, and a bipartisan group of enemies in government, the old Facebook, the ever-expanding, government-ignoring, world-conquering company of only a year or two ago, is gone.

Its own internal surveys bear this out: Facebook was once legendary for the cultish dedication of its employees — reporting on the company was nearly impossible because workers refused to leak — but employee confidence in Facebook’s future, as judged by internal surveys reported on by the Journal, is down 32 percentage points over the past year, to 52 percent. Around the same number of Facebook employees think the company is making the world a better place, down 19 points from this time last year, and employees report that they plan to leave Facebook for new jobs earlier than they had in the past. Scarier even for Facebook is the possibility, for which there is some anecdotal evidence, that it’s no longer a sought-after employer for top computer-science and engineering graduates.

There’s already ample evidence that Facebook is losing its hold on users. In the markets where Facebook is most profitable, its user base is either stagnant, as in North America, or actually shrinking, as in Europe. The company might be able to reassure itself that Instagram — which it wholly owns — is still expanding impressively, but the success of Instagram hasn’t stopped Facebook from getting punished on the stock market.

Facebook blames its attenuating European-user figures not on its faltering public image but on the European Union’s aggressive new privacy law, GDPR. But this raises a more troubling possibility for Facebook: that its continued success is dependent on a soft regulatory touch it can no longer expect from governments. What makes the Times revelations particularly dangerous to Zuckerberg’s empire is that they arrive at a moment when there is actually the political will to challenge its dominance. The fall of Facebook may not come after a long decline but through outside action — slapped with major fines and expensive investigations, chastened and disempowered by a new regulatory regime. “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” Rhode Island representative David Cicilline — who will likely run the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust issues — tweeted last week.

In the Senate, skepticism regarding tech giants is enough of a bipartisan issue that there appears to be room for an agreement on data protection and user privacy. “I’m not looking to regulate [Zuckerberg] half to death,” Republican senator John Kennedy said earlier this year, “but I can tell you this: The issue isn’t going away.” It’s true that some Republican critics seem less concerned about Facebook’s overwhelming power than about the spurious claims of conservatives that their views are being suppressed on the platform, but there is genuine Republican interest in reining in Facebook. Action against big tech companies is a beloved topic of Steve Bannon and his wing of the GOP, and Trump himself, of course, has no particular affection for the company.

Trump’s Department of Justice, in fact, might represent Facebook’s biggest threat. The head of the Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim, has been singing the praises of the famous DOJ Microsoft antitrust lawsuit. As Tim Wu, a former FTC adviser and the author of The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the Gilded Age, puts it, “whoever leads the case to break up Facebook will have the political winds and the public at his back.” A new Axios poll supports this assessment. Americans have reversed their opinions about social media over the past year, and a majority of Americans across the political spectrum now believe that social media hurts democracy and that the government isn’t doing enough to regulate it.

It’s the public outrage that should be most worrying to Facebook. Other tech giants have managed to escape the opprobrium directed at Facebook because they have obviously useful services. Amazon delivers things to your house. Google helps you find things online. Apple sells actual objects. Facebook … helps you get into fights? Delivers your old classmates’ political opinions to your brain?

Over the past year, I’ve spent time trying to wean myself off tech mega-platforms, generally with little success. Google’s search, for all my complaints, is still the best way for me to navigate the internet; Amazon is still so unbelievably convenient that the thought of quitting it exhausts me. But I logged out of Facebook more than a year ago and have logged back in fewer than a dozen times since. Checking Facebook had been a daily habit, but it also hadn’t improved my life or made itself necessary. Not many Roman plebes would have said that about the Pax Romana. Some empires fall because they’re invaded from the outside or rot from within. Zuckerberg’s could be the first in history to collapse simply because its citizens logged out.

*This article appears in the November 26, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!