Since at least 2015, Mark Zuckerberg has opened up to tens of thousands of Facebook employees in weekly question-and-answer sessions. Very little of what Zuckerberg discussed in these sessions has become public—until Tuesday, that is, when The Verge published audio and transcripts from two of these meetings, where the CEO discusses a range of threats facing the company, from a potential Elizabeth Warren presidency to the rise of video app TikTok and Facebook’s declining public image.
Zuckerberg’s meetings came in the wake of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan, released in March, to “break up big tech.” The Democratic presidential candidate suggested Facebook behaved anti-competitively when it acquired potential competitors like Instagram, and called for Facebook’s mergers with Instagram and WhatsApp to be unwound. Analysts have suggested that Instagram could represent as much of 70 percent of Facebook’s total advertising revenue by 2020, and Facebook is able share data across its platforms, making a potential break-up painful for the advertising behemoth. In January, The New York Times first reported that Zuckerberg planned to integrate Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram further by unifying their “underlying technical infrastructure,” a reversal of Facebook’s earlier promises that the properties would be operated independently. That plan would let Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users message one another across platforms in end-to-end encrypted messages; while adding encryption to Facebook Messenger and Instagram, which are not currently encrypted by default, could have some privacy benefits for users, it would also make the three companies more difficult to split apart.
In the audio leaked by The Verge of a July 2019 internal meeting, Zuckerberg said:
You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies … I mean, if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean … it’s like, we care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.
Zuckerberg acknowledged other headwinds facing the company, like the rising popularity of TikTok, unfavorable depictions in the press, and election security, but Facebook employees also asked a more basic question: what to say to friends and family who have “negative” opinions of the company. To that, Zuckerberg implied that if everyone only knew how pure of heart the company was, Facebook would have a positive image. “It’s tough to break down these perceptions and build trust until you get to a place where people know that you have their best interests at heart,” he said, adding, “I just find that sitting down and talking to people and having them know that you care about the problems and acknowledge that there are issues and that you’re working through them … I think it just makes a big difference.”
In response to Zuckerberg’s comments about her plans to break up Facebook, Warren tweeted, “what would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”
Facebook is currently under investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and the attorneys general of seven other states for “potential anticompetitive conduct,” along with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. In July, the FTC announced Facebook would pay a $5 billion fine for range of privacy violations between 2012 and 2017, including those associated with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.