Controversy Over Facebook Executive’s Comments Overblown

Provocative and problematic — but not perilous. The recent release of a memo sent out to Facebook employees on June 18, 2016, from Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth has been interpreted as the company pushing employees to strive for growth regardless of potentially devastating consequences. The memo provoked fears that Facebook executives knowingly exposed the public to harm for profit. But this response is shortsighted; a closer reading of the memo reveals a poorly worded but well-intentioned letter. Many of the controversial lines from the memo have been taken out of context. While the letter in no way sits entirely in the right, it resides, at the very least, in a moral gray area.

Major media outlets, like The New York Times and Buzzfeed, have focused on a few troublesome lines from the memo while ignoring the broader message. One such line reads, “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.” Especially when read in isolation, the flippant nature with which Bosworth addressed terrorism makes it seem as though he doesn’t care if a terrorist attack occurs. However, many former Facebook employees have said that Bosworth frequently used dramatic language like this to make a point, according to Buzzfeed News. Rather than interpreting Bosworth’s words as condoning terrorism, perhaps he chose to give a drastic example about the potential drawbacks of Facebook’s growth to catch the attention of his employees. While this may be insensitive, it is more believable than the apathy assumed of him.

Bosworth also refers to “questionable contact importing practices” and the “subtle use of language” that Facebook uses to help itself expand. These lines in particular have attracted attention as being indicative of a “relentless quest for growth,” according to BuzzFeed News. However, Bosworth makes it clear that Facebook is aware of the problems these tactics create, but he argues that there is a utilitarian aspect to increasing the world’s connectivity. He addresses the importance of Facebook’s work many times throughout the letter, even writing that growth tactics aren’t “something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). [Implementing those tactics] is literally just what we do … But make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here. If you joined the company because it is doing great work, that’s why we get to do that great work.”

Granted, this claim hinges on a belief in the power of connectivity and communication. Regardless of how you feel about technology and social media, the effects of increased connectivity on our global society are undeniably massive. We can communicate with people in parts of the world that we never would have been exposed to otherwise. We can spread social change initiatives and philanthropic movements in a matter of minutes. We can hear about tragedies in other parts of the world independent of formal news networks, therefore hearing individual accounts of those directly impacted. Increased communication has been, and will continue to be, a driving force for change if used in the right way. With that in mind, it’s difficult to not agree with at least the memo’s general idea.   

A large part of the controversy with Bosworth’s memo lies in the fact Facebook executives were aware of their platform’s negative effects and intentionally downplayed them while selling large amounts of data to Cambridge Analytica, a firm sold this information to political campaigns. For many Facebook users, this act was a huge invasion of privacy, and, through the memo’s justification of Facebook’s growth policies, it is easy to see how this concealing of bigger problems can be a necessary cost for the connection that Facebook provides.

But the question is this: Do we truly believe that Facebook executives genuinely want their platform to provide a global service beyond profit incentives? Bosworth wrote in his memo, “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is ‘de facto’ good.” This leads to the conclusion that Bosworth’s vision for world-changing communication isn’t just a public relations scheme to promote Facebook. Nor does the letter indicate that Facebook promotes terrorist organizations on the platform for the sake of growth. Rather, these occurrences are unfortunate consequences of a universally available communication network.

In a company whose commodity is communication, executives should be more careful with the language they use to communicate their ideas. Facebook is in desperate need of transparency when describing the negative effects its product can have. Nevertheless, Bosworth’s memo doesn’t promote the senseless expansion of Facebook stock and profits as has been suggested, even if he could have phrased it better. He is advocating not for the at-all-costs growth of Facebook’s profit margins, but for expanding the service the company can provide a service that, when used correctly, can allow for a more connected and knowledgeable global society.

Alexandra Grouzis is a College freshman from Franklin, Tenn.