“We Never Saw This Coming”

Antonio García Martínez, Facebook’s former ads manager, says the company couldn’t imagine its tools would ever be used to meddle in an election.

Antonio García Martínez
Antonio García Martínez.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Helena Price.

This week was the Super Bowl of tech news: Twitter, Facebook, and Google all went to Congress for three different hearings investigating exactly what they knew about Russian meddling on their platforms during the 2016 election and what they could’ve done to stop it. On the inaugural episode of Slate’s new tech podcast If Then, April Glaser and Will Oremus talk with Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee and author of Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. Find the whole episode here, and subscribe here.

April Glaser: You worked on the [Facebook] ad platform, and so much of the conversation is around ads. Of course, it’s not just [Russian-purchased] ads that were circulated. It was also unpaid posts. Could this have been foreseen?

Antonio García Martínez: I was there for two years when Facebook’s targeting platform sort of came of age. A lot of the targeting that we consider creepy now, it turns out I helped actually build. I was one of the first product managers on a lot of this stuff. If you browse the internet and then see all that stuff inside your Facebook experience, I literally built the first versions of that.

Facebook was really chaotic back then. In that random way, I was also product manager of what’s called ads quality. That’s the ads police organization that is right now scrambling to stop this whole Russian political ad thing and coming up with plans. I have some knowledge of what that team was like, so getting back to your question. Could I have seen this coming? No. I held those positions during the last presidential election in 2012.

I’ve seen this kind of movie before in a very different context. If you had told me in 2012 that Kremlin agents were going to use Facebook ads to subvert American democracy, I would’ve said you were crazy and What are you talking about? and Stop wasting my time; I have things to do.

Facebook running the internet now seems like foregone conclusion. You have to realize that even at Facebook at the time, it wasn’t obvious that politicians would ever spend money on Facebook because it was actually a very hard sell. They’re usually pretty slow adopters. They’re pretty hidebound. They’re pretty traditional. They spend money on TV and radio and whatever. I think it was very difficult to see.

On the flip side, though, let me take off my little secret Facebook hat or whatever: I think the company and the Silicon Valley thing in general has such techno-optimism about everything that often it serves as blinders to the dark heart of human soul and how these tools can be used for more nefarious purposes. I think they do bear some blame, for example.

In my book, I mention that when you join Facebook, you have this process called onboarding, which is very typical with any startup. You basically get baptized into this new cult that you’re joining, because every successful startup is a cult, and Facebook is no different. They had Chris Cox, who was then head of product and still is—he’s actually one of the longest-serving employees at Facebook, very important guy—come out and give this very convincing, charismatic spiel about how Facebook was the New York Times of you, channel you, your own personalized media, everything. This notion of Facebook being a newspaper to the world was part of the vision in 2012, so this is not something they made up at the last second.

It never really occurred to us, and I was as much enchanted by this vision as anybody else. It was never obvious that there would be a negative side to that, that this massive filter bubble would happen, that political polarization on a massive scale would happen, that it would be misused by Russian agents, whatever. It’s just that techno-optimism is what’s largely to blame there.

That techno-optimism is just apolitical is what you’re saying?

Right. Silicon Valley tends to skew left. It can also skew kind of right, libertarian. The reality is, by and large, they tend to ignore politics. They completely ignore the government and just assume it doesn’t exist there, when they don’t actually hold it in contempt.