“ ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t,” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” the memo went on. But “crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.
All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, lashed out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic support of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just defeated Bernie Sanders in Nevada, only to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d made two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by blasting out messages like “American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.”
So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and sent the image to a friend named Michael Nuñez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nuñez promptly published a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.
A week later, Fearnow came across something else he thought Nuñez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.
Fearnow, a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, worked in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topics, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a team of about 25 people with backgrounds in journalism. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed.
Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Fearnow and his team weren’t the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook. Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans—because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team—who served partly to train those algorithms—would be expendable.
The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a videoconference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.
That same day, Ahuja had another conversation with a second employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nuñez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he certainly hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the story about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nuñez on Facebook. “Do you think leaks are bad?” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The company had given him $15 to cover expenses, and it wanted the money back.
The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge—and Nuñez kept digging for dirt. He soon published a story about the internal poll showing Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he published an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The piece suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal stories and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the piece popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.
The post went viral, but the ensuing battle over Trending Topics did more than just dominate a few news cycles. In ways that are only fully visible now, it set the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence—triggering a chain of events that would distract and confuse the company while larger disasters began to engulf it.
This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.)
The stories varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.
In that saga, Fearnow plays one of those obscure but crucial roles that history occasionally hands out. He’s the Franz Ferdinand of Facebook—or maybe he’s more like the archduke’s hapless young assassin. Either way, in the rolling disaster that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016, Fearnow’s leaks probably ought to go down as the screenshots heard round the world.
By now, the story of Facebook’s all-consuming growth is practically the creation myth of our information era. What began as a way to connect with your friends at Harvard became a way to connect with people at other elite schools, then at all schools, and then everywhere. After that, your Facebook login became a way to log on to other internet sites. Its Messenger app started competing with email and texting. It became the place where you told people you were safe after an earthquake. In some countries like the Philippines, it effectively is the internet.
The furious energy of this big bang emanated, in large part, from a brilliant and simple insight. Humans are social animals. But the internet is a cesspool. That scares people away from identifying themselves and putting personal details online. Solve that problem—make people feel safe to post—and they will share obsessively. Make the resulting database of privately shared information and personal connections available to advertisers, and that platform will become one of the most important media technologies of the early 21st century.
But as powerful as that original insight was, Facebook’s expansion has also been driven by sheer brawn. Zuckerberg has been a determined, even ruthless, steward of the company’s manifest destiny, with an uncanny knack for placing the right bets. In the company’s early days, “move fast and break things” wasn’t just a piece of advice to his developers; it was a philosophy that served to resolve countless delicate trade-offs—many of them involving user privacy—in ways that best favored the platform’s growth. And when it comes to competitors, Zuckerberg has been relentless in either acquiring or sinking any challengers that seem to have the wind at their backs.
In fact, it was in besting just such a rival that Facebook came to dominate how we discover and consume news. Back in 2012, the most exciting social network for distributing news online wasn’t Facebook, it was Twitter. The latter’s 140-character posts accelerated the speed at which news could spread, allowing its influence in the news industry to grow much faster than Facebook’s. “Twitter was this massive, massive threat,” says a former Facebook executive heavily involved in the decisionmaking at the time.
It appears that Facebook did not, however, carefully think through the implications of becoming the dominant force in the news industry. Everyone in management cared about quality and accuracy, and they had set up rules, for example, to eliminate pornography and protect copyright. But Facebook hired few journalists and spent little time discussing the big questions that bedevil the media industry. What is fair? What is a fact? How do you signal the difference between news, analysis, satire, and opinion? Facebook has long seemed to think it has immunity from those debates because it is just a technology company—one that has built a “platform for all ideas.”
This notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company. When new recruits come in, they are treated to an orientation lecture by Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, who tells them Facebook is an entirely new communications platform for the 21st century, as the telephone was for the 20th. But if anyone inside Facebook is unconvinced by religion, there is also Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to recommend the idea. This is the section of US law that shelters internet intermediaries from liability for the content their users post. If Facebook were to start creating or editing content on its platform, it would risk losing that immunity—and it’s hard to imagine how Facebook could exist if it were liable for the many billion pieces of content a day that users post on its site.
And so, because of the company’s self-image, as well as its fear of regulation, Facebook tried never to favor one kind of news content over another. But neutrality is a choice in itself. For instance, Facebook decided to present every piece of content that appeared on News Feed—whether it was your dog pictures or a news story—in roughly the same way. This meant that all news stories looked roughly the same as each other, too, whether they were investigations in The Washington Post, gossip in the New York Post, or flat-out lies in the Denver Guardian, an entirely bogus newspaper. Facebook argued that this democratized information. You saw what your friends wanted you to see, not what some editor in a Times Square tower chose. But it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t an editorial decision. It may be one of the biggest ever made.
In any case, Facebook’s move into news set off yet another explosion of ways that people could connect. Now Facebook was the place where publications could connect with their readers—and also where Macedonian teenagers could connect with voters in America, and operatives in Saint Petersburg could connect with audiences of their own choosing in a way that no one at the company had ever seen before.