The New York Times Is Wrong About the 'Myth of Big Tech Competence'

Still, Facebook should not have allowed its VIPs to flout the rules it claimed applied to everyone.


Facebook has long claimed its standards of conduct apply equally to all users. Documents that surfaced earlier this week, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, indicate otherwise. They show that the social media company has long maintained an "XCheck" ("cross-check") program in which high-profile accounts representing celebrities, journalists, and politicians are exempt from normal enforcement measures, with different rules applying to them than to everyday users.

About 5.8 million out of 2.9 billion monthly active Facebook users have this status, which allows them to sometimes post violating content without receiving sanctions. The types of things that normally get flagged when other users post them—bullying and harassment, revenge porn, so-called hate speech—get more lenient treatment by moderators. Worried about P.R. backlash, Facebook is more choosy with which policies to enforce for VIPs, allowing them to get away with much more, and for much longer, than typical users.

Internal documents showed that many violations by VIP accounts never received review at all, an issue that was noted to the company's Oversight Board, formed to serve as a 20-person accountability body to oversee content moderation decisions and appeals processes. Earlier this year, the Oversight Board made recommendations to the company that it disclose "relative error rates" and "thematic consistency of determinations" between XCheck accounts and typical user accounts. Facebook rejected this suggestion.

"[The documents] show that Facebook knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands," but the company "often lacks the will or the ability to address them," notes the Journal. "Facebook appeared more concerned with avoiding gaffes than mitigating high-profile abuse."

The New York Times' Shira Ovide seized on this in a piece entitled "The Myth of Big Tech Competence." In it, she writes that "V.I.P.s were exempt from the company's rules less out of malicious intent than neglect," and that The Wall Street Journal's "reporting ultimately points to a more fundamental error: A large organization displayed stunning mismanagement, and could not or would not fully fix its problems." She concludes:

"It's not shocking when Congress or the cable company act incompetently. But we see tech giants with gazillion dollars and big brains as special and all-seeing and as being smarter than everyone else. That makes it feel more surprising when tech giants mess up worker pay and won't admit it, as Google did, or fumble for years trying to sell groceries, as Amazon has done.

Tech companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon have seemingly invincible power, but their growing wealth is not stopping these giants from also, at times, being ridiculously inept."

Ovide's critique misses a lot. First, people always have the ability to opt out of Facebook usage—and Amazon, Google, and Twitter usage, too. Some companies have long tentacles that are hard to free yourself from; it would be hard to fully avoid every website that uses Amazon Web Services as a host, but it would not be hard at all to give up your Prime membership and two-day shipping in favor of halcyon jaunts to Target. It would not be hard to default to Bing, which is used for a little more than 4.5 percent of the world's search queries (China's Baidu stands at a little under 15 percent, for contrast) instead of Google. You can have a perfectly rich social life without the use of Facebook, or even Instagram (which is owned by the former); you can choose Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, or Reddit to interact with friends and strangers alike online. You can even try old-fashioned meatspace if you dare.

People do not, however, have the ability to opt out of being governed, to decide they don't like the rules Congress imposes on them, and to say "enough."

Second, Facebook has really strong incentives to self-correct. It may not always choose to do so—for reasons that are often obscured to us—but static, unwieldy bureaucracies rarely feel these same incentives and, even if they did, they would have a much harder time acting on them. The Oversight Board, which admittedly failed in this instance to compel the company to pursue a more transparent approach, was created as a means of revisiting questionable content moderation calls and what precedent gets set. Facebook has shown that it doesn't want to be arbitrary or fickle, but is currently experiencing the fallout from its public struggle to align actions with intent.

Third, Ovide muddles the problems of Facebook malfeasance and Amazon experimenting with different grocery-selling models. The latter isn't an example of wrongdoing or stupidity, it's an example of the process that pretty much every company goes through while trying to innovate: attempting to figure out exactly what consumers need and how to give it to them. Amazon struggling with grocery delivery models—and then beginning to figure it out in impressive ways, including debuting a new checkout-free supermarket in Seattle and checkout-free convenience stores in four major American cities, all while grocery delivery choked a bit at the onset of the pandemic before later steadying (nuggets absent from the Times' analysis)—is not an example of Big Tech incompetence, just as Apple struggling for years with figuring out what niche the tablet serves, or how to use multitouch technology for iPhones, is not an example of its incompetence. These are examples of companies learning what works and what doesn't.

Worse still, the New York Times piece fundamentally excuses government incompetence, accepting it as a given, while skewering tech companies for sometimes making the wrong calls. Why do we write off incompetence on the part of Congress? They're the ones who spend colossal amounts of our money year after year with little eye toward results.

It's not tech companies that have "seemingly invincible power," it's the government that does—the entity that has a monopoly on force and wields it with no real opt-out mechanism for those of us who object.