Facebook is a “super nation state that doesn’t understand national security,” said The Facebook Dilemma producers Anya Bourg, James Jacoby and Dana Priest at the 10th annual Rebele Symposium.
In reporting for the PBS Frontline documentary The Facebook Dilemma, which investigated the social media company in the wake of fake news and mounting pressure over Russian influence, Bourg, Jacoby and Priest encountered what they described as a culture of secrecy reminiscent of the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Defense.
During the 90-minute talk, moderated by communication department chair Jay Hamilton, the producers discussed navigating nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and the Silicon Valley practice of “blacklisting” employees who spoke out against their employer. They argued that the social media giant, with its global reach, faces international problems in struggling with authoritarian regimes’ use of its platform.
“We went in [to filming] with very sincere hope that they would tell us what it was like inside Facebook right when the  election happened, right when the Russia thing broke, right when the UN called them out on Myanmar,” said Priest, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. “If you know that you’re being given this opportunity, why aren’t you taking it? … You just don’t get it … or you really have something to hide.”
The cultural pressure at Facebook of staying quiet, Bourg said, was almost as powerful as the threat of legal retaliation.
Bourg, Jacoby and Priest also said the stereotypically young Facebook employees operate with an attitude of “imperviousness” and “naiveté,” leading the producers to question whether employees understood the magnitude of scrutiny directed at their employer.
“[We tried] to let Facebook people … make their best case for themselves,” Priest said. “Their best case that they make is not an adequate case.”
According to Bourg, part of the dilemma lies in the explosive magnitude of Facebook’s growth, which she called “a testament to their success.”
“Problems came along in every language, in every dialect,” she said. “And here they are in Palo Alto trying to deal with it.”
Over the course of its 15-year history, Facebook has been lauded as a force for and against democracy. During the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, the social media platform was a focus point for activist organizing — but, according to Bourg, authoritarian regimes quickly caught on to the platform’s potential.
As recently as last fall, military forces in Myanmar set up fake accounts on Facebook to incite racial violence and ethnic cleansing, The New York Times reported.
“[Facebook is] facilitating non-democratic forces, unfortunately, probably as much as in the beginning when they facilitated democratic sources,” Priest said.
In response to an audience question about what “satisfactory change” would look like at Facebook, Jacoby argued that it would need to include some aspect of regulation.
Jacoby also highlighted the need to deal with the issue of fake accounts, especially when it comes to “amplifying anti-democratic messaging.”
All three producers emphasized the sheer scale of the challenges Facebook faces. Bourg, who called it “mind-numbing,” described their visit to One Hacker Way, where they heard someone yell out, “We need a fact-checker for the Middle East!”
“Trying to fact-check a two-hour film takes weeks,” Bourg said. “You can’t fact-check the Middle East. And there’s not one person that’s going to do it.”
There are departments inside Facebook that are trying to enact positive change, the producers allowed, citing its recent announcement to invest $300 million in news initiatives, especially local news.
Still, Bourg said, “It’s hard to tell a story about the future. We wind up focusing on the past and present.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Anya Bourg’s name. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.