The Corrosive Power of Wealth

On a superficial level, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, tells the day-by-day story of the explosive growth of Facebook to trillion-dollar status.

And so it does, with page-turning precision, beginning with how Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg’spuerile website, Facemash, which graded the appearance of his classmates, earned him a disciplinary action for, among other issues, copyright and privacy infractions. Those proved to be the first of a decades-long phalanx of norm violations that would see the company he later founded widely recognized as a threat to democracy at home and to the lives of ethnic minorities abroad.

The authors, alas, do not do as good a job of framing Facebook’s story within its larger neuropsychological and moral contexts. They neglect, for example, the roots of the book’s central theme, the uncanny ability of social media to amplify patently false information. This is not a new phenomenon; in 1710, Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” (A more popular version of which, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots,” is apocryphally ascribed to both Twain and Churchill.)

Recent research has confirmed this ancient bit of folk wisdom; one study, for example, demonstrated that fake news stories, which are generally lurid and sensationalistic, are 70%more likely to be retweeted than real ones. Bots don’t speed the spread of fake information, humans on laptops and phones do. Hence, the “three degrees of Alex Jones” phenomenon on YouTube has become gallows humor among communications specialists: Only three clicks will separate a video on replacing your lawnmower’s spark plug and Mr. Jones raging about the Sandy Hook school-massacre “hoax.”