In a 2016 employee memo that was leaked this week, a Facebook executive defended the company’s questionable data mining practices and championed the growth of social media at any cost - apparently even death.
“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” company vice president Andrew Bosworth wrote in the memo, according to BuzzFeed News, which published it Thursday. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. 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.”
Bosworth, who oversaw Facebook’s advertising and business platform at the time and is now in charge of the company’s virtual reality department, has acknowledged writing the message but said he intended only to start a debate. “I didn’t agree with it even when I wrote it,” he wrote on Twitter after BuzzFeed published its report.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who is already facing a public relations crisis over accusations that the company mishandled millions of users’ private data, disavowed the memo.
“Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things,” Zuckerberg said in a statement, using Bosworth’s nickname. “This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We’ve never believed the ends justify the means.”
The 418-word memo is framed around Zuckerberg’s often-stated mission to connect the entire world through Facebook, which Bosworth cites as the company’s ultimate and unchangeable goal - whether those connections let users fall in love, attack each other or, in the memo’s most extreme example, coordinate a terrorist attack.
“That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified,” Bosworth wrote. “All the questionable contact importing practices. 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.”
BuzzFeed noted that the memo was written almost immediately after a man was shot to death while streaming live video of himself with Facebook Live, and a few days before a Palestinian teenager was accused of killing an Israeli girl after praising terrorists on Facebook.
These deaths were a prelude to a string of other gruesome and violent incidents that appeared in videos and live streams on the social network. A man posted a Facebook video of himself killing someone last April. A month later, a man soaked himself in kerosene, lit himself on fire and used Facebook Live to stream video of his self-immolation.
This year, the public learned that Russian operatives used Facebook to propagandize and troll Americans during the 2016 election, using connectivity to create division. The repeated scandals reached a crisis point this month, with the revelation that a political firm linked to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign improperly obtained and exploited data from millions of users.
While Bosworth now argues that he was playing devil’s advocate in his memo, he wrote at the time that Facebook, by necessity, would keep connecting people and expanding no matter how ugly the cost.
“In almost all of our work, we have to answer hard questions about what we believe,” he concluded. “We have to justify the metrics and make sure they aren’t losing out on a bigger picture. But connecting people. That’s our imperative. Because that’s what we do. We connect people.”
During the nearly two years that the memo remained on Facebook’s internal platform, BuzzFeed wrote, employees commented on it and debated it. While Bosworth said it was one of his most unpopular employee messages, a former senior executive told BuzzFeed that it was “super popular internally.”
The memo drew criticism after it leaked this week. New York Magazine writer Max Read noted that the memo resembled a parody of Facebook’s philosophy that he had written a few months earlier.
Bosworth has continued to defend the memo as a thought exercise, arguing on Twitter with people who were skeptical that he hadn’t meant every word he wrote.
At least some Facebook critics accepted Bosworth’s defense that he’d merely been trying to provoke. “It would be terrifying if Facebook’s leadership was so ensconced in naive bromides about the goodness of connecting people as to be blind to its obvious dark sides,” Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic.
The Verge reported that Bosworth deleted the 2016 memo after learning it had been obtained by reporters this week and then wrote a new memo to employees in which he complained about the initial leak.
“If we have to live in fear that even our bad ideas will be exposed then we won’t explore them or understand them as such,” Bosworth wrote, according to the Verge. “We run a much greater risk of stumbling on them later.”