Former President Donald Trump has ramped up his criticism of Facebook and other tech giants since leaving office. Earlier this month, he filed separate lawsuits against Facebook (FB), Google-owned YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL), and Twitter (TWTR) over alleged censorship.
A new book, “An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination," draws on interviews with more than 400 people in and around Facebook to reveal how the rise and presidency of Trump placed the tech giant under immense public scrutiny that caused turmoil among its top executives.
Cecilia Kang, New York Times technology reporter and co-author of the book, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview that Trump tested the company's business model and culture, which she says prioritizes user engagement and growth over limits on potentially harmful speech.
The Trump era also caused a rift between Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who concentrated power under himself during the trying period, Kang said.
"Trump, in many ways, tested so many parts of the business, so many things that were already systemic and intrinsic to the business model and the technology and the culture," she says.
"So once Trump came and controversy surfaced, and lots of these problems and scandals emerged, Mark Zuckerberg seized much more control," she says.
'When the looting starts, the shooting starts'
The challenges that coincided with Trump began with the 2016 presidential campaign, when his incendiary rhetoric as well as Russian election interference forced Facebook to reckon with the consequences of content posted on the platform.
Ensuing scandals include the revelation in March 2018 that data firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from Facebook users to assemble voter profiles; as well as a worker protest and ad boycott in June 2020 over Facebook's decision to leave up a post from Trump after the police murder of George Floyd in which Trump wrote, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."
The spate of scandals took a toll on the professional relationship between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, which began at a Christmas party in 2007 that led to her hiring a year later. As public scrutiny worsened, Zuckerberg grew frustrated with the negative attention and took greater control of the company, Kang says.
"Importantly, what we saw is that Sheryl Sandberg, who was the counterbalance to some of his sort of impulses and his personality, did not push back as much as I think many people internally from what we heard, hoped she would," Kang says.
"He had lost also some faith in her as well in that he was really mad that the company's reputation was deteriorating within the Trump era," Kang says. "He casts some blame on her. And I would say probably unfairly, because a lot of the problems came from his side of the business, which was product."
Kang joined The New York Times after a decade at the Washington Post, following stints with the San Jose Mercury and Dow Jones.
Tension between Facebook and Trump reached a breaking point soon after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, when Facebook banned Trump from the platform. The decision to suspend his account after the Capitol attack was upheld by the company's Oversight Board in May, but Facebook was asked to review its decision to ban him indefinitely within the next six months. A month later, Facebook decided to ban Trump for two years with the possibility of an extension.
Kang says the company failed to take action in the lead up to Jan. 6, as eventual Capitol protesters organized on their platform.
"They simply didn't act," Kang says. "At one point executives tried to get Mark Zuckerberg to call the president, the former President Trump, they decided not to because they're afraid it would leak to the press."
"But it was another one of those examples where they saw organizing happen, and they were just so concerned about what to do, they did not clamp down on it."