Is Facebook’s leadership incompetent, or malicious?

It is increasingly difficult to say with a straight face that Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are fit to run a company with as much global power as Facebook.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It should now be beyond all doubt: the top team of Facebook – the USA’s seventh-biggest company – are either woefully incompetent, or else they are actively duplicitous. Whichever it is, both the moral case and practical case for leaving Facebook’s senior management in place are weakening by the day.

The backdrop is bad enough for them. The social network lies at the centres of allegations of online misinformation – by state and other actors – in elections across the globe, perhaps most notably the 2016 US Presidential election.

Facebook has further been criticised for years for a sluggish and inadequate response to hate-speech, sustained abuse, and fostering far-right anti-Semitic and racist groups.

Its WhatApp platform has been connected to violent mobs fuelled by misinformation in India, which have in turn been connected to lynchings. And just last month, WhatsApp was connected to sustained efforts to spreads viral fake news in Brazil’s elections, which saw the sexist, racist homophobe Jair Bolsonaro take the country’s presidency.

Despite a global PR tour and a string of public apologies, Facebook appears to have done little in practice to actually grasp the problem: just last week it had to withdraw a new system in the UK which would require political advertisers to register themselves, and show their adverts in a public archive.

The reason it had to be pulled and rethought? It had not occurred to the engineering team that people might just make something up in that field – and so Facebook’s mechanism to tackle misinformation got immediately hijacked with fake news. That would be mortifying incompetence even if this wasn’t the company’s ostensible top priority.

This would be enough of a case for incompetence on its own, but the exec team doesn’t seem to have managed much to tackle the company’s commercial malaise either.

It is stagnating in its most lucrative markets and failing to secure the new generation of internet users on anything like the scale it used to – and it’s only just starting to see the consequences of its efforts to try to expand into countries with less functional political and information systems.

That’s the argument that Facebook’s top team aren’t up to the problems they’re facing – though you could argue given the scale of Facebook and the scale of those problems, perhaps no-one could be.

But that’s before we get towards the arguments for malice.

Earlier this week, the New York Times revealed that Facebook had hired an outside PR firm, which worked to interest right-wing media outlets in stories connecting a group critical of the company to George Soros.

No company in the world is in a better position than Facebook to know what a toxic dog-whistle this is: Soros has been the bogeyman of far-right and nationalist movements across the world, and has become a transparent means for people trying to keep a veneer of respectability to spread anti-Semitism.

Facebook has surely hosted more of those efforts than any other company in the world. And now, through an outside PR company, we know it was responsible for spreading them itself, too.

The company’s response is laughably disingenuous, and assumes the media and public are stupid. Senior execs have taken the line of shocked innocence, saying they had no idea their PR company was engaged in activities like this, dropping the company, and saying it has no wish to do “Washington” style PR.

This is abject and obvious nonsense: there is surely no way Facebook did not know who they were hiring. Definers Public Affairs, as the Daily Beast reported, have been responsible for spreading information smearing climate change activists and legislators, and was hired by former EPA chair Scott Pruitt to dig up dirt on his opponents: this is a dirty tricks firm, not a PR-as-usual one.

Facebook are asking us to believe they are a sophisticated multi-billion-pound company run by ingenues who don’t even do the most basic due diligence on the people they hire to run their most sensitive PR campaigns.

That’s implausible enough just on its own, but Facebook have hired similar outfits in the past – using a different firm in 2011 to encourage news outlets to run negative stories on its rival, Google. Are we supposed to believe Facebook knew all about PR dark arts then, but forgot in the meantime?

Facebook’s top management is treating their shareholders, their regulators, their governments, their customers and the wider public with contempt. They should not be surprised if that feeling rapidly becomes mutual.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk