The veteran tech journalist and Recode co-founder has been critical of the social media giant for the past two years, calling out the company for not taking enough responsibility for the impact its platform has on the world.
“It was a group of people that had enormous power and kept pretending to me, when I talked to them, that they didn’t have power, that they shouldn’t make decisions, that they didn’t have the responsibility,” Swisher said, speaking at the TechFestNW conference in Portland on Friday. “It started to really bother me.”
Facebook is under the microscope after an avalanche of scandals have rocked the Silicon Valley giant over the past year, culminating in revelations that Republican-backed political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica used unauthorized data from 87 million users to inform conservative campaigns. The company was already dealing with federal investigations and Congressional wrist-slapping over the role the platform played in Russian interference in the 2016 election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is expected to testify before several Senate and House committees this week.
Swisher recalled several conversations with Facebook executives that made her question the company’s mindset — for example, when she warned them of potential malicious uses of Facebook Live, the live streaming product Facebook rolled out in 2016.
“I said, ‘what are you going to do about people who murder someone on this platform, or people who commit suicide?’” Swisher said. “The response from the Facebook people was, ‘Kara, you’re so negative.’ … It just didn’t occur to them that there are bad people in the world. I thought that was willfully ignorant.”
Swisher added that “it’s insane they let the Russians take over their platform and didn’t notice it,” noting that the company simply did not have enough control of its technology.
Despite her criticism, Swisher called Zuckerberg a “lovely person.”
“I just don’t think they had a sense of their responsibility and their power and their wealth,” she said.
Swisher said other tech giants like Apple and Snapchat do a better job of monitoring who uses their platform, and there’s no reason why Facebook can’t, either.
“They can curate,” she said. “They just don’t want to.”
Facebook, which has lost $100 billion in market capitalization since Feb. 2, was a popular subject at TechFestNW. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said that the company “absolutely failed at responsibly managing its platform by letting its algorithms get hijacked by extreme or fake content that winds up dividing the country.”
Nellie Bowles, a former Recode reporter who now writes for The New York Times, said the Facebook reckoning will continue. She echoed some of Swisher’s thoughts on Facebook and other tech companies for not realizing the impact their products have on larger society.
“It’s been hard for people in the tech world — people who work at big companies and people who work at small companies — to start realizing that their work is having a cultural impact, and maybe even a negative cultural impact,” Bowles said. “I think understanding what it’s doing has been very disturbing to them. The press has been part of the problem. Reporters have covered Silicon Valley like it’s a business story, about stock prices, how much was raised, or look at this cool founder. It hasn’t been covered as a culture story. It hasn’t been covered as a power story. I hope more people start doing that.”