The Facebook Dilemma | Interview Of Elizabeth Linder: Former Facebook Politics & Government Specialist

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Elizabeth Linder was a politics and government specialist at Facebook from 2008-2016. She founded and is currently CEO of The Conversational Century. This is the transcript of an interview with Frontline’s James Jacoby conducted on April 13, 2018. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

Let’s start like Genesis, in the beginning. What brought you to Facebook in the first place? Tell me how you end up there.

Yeah, well my career began at Google. I was assigned to the YouTube offices and it was the woman who trained me in how it is that Google thought about communications and PR who called me up one day and said, “Look, I know you love what you’re doing at YouTube, but I’ve just gone over to Facebook to build out their international communications team and I need an associate. Would you come?”

And I just thought well you know what? Why not? I was at YouTube in total for 11 months before making the hop over to Facebook’s original offices in Palo Alto.

And this was what year?

That was 2008 that I made the switchover. So the international communications team at the time had the director of international comms, a manager, and then me as the associate. So we were a three-person team initially and then that became a two-person team between my boss and me.

Facebook’s Mission

It’s 2008 and they call you in to do this, to be part of a three-person team at the time.

So what was amazing at that time is it was the first moment that there were feelings that major societal events were starting to play out on Facebook. And I very clearly remember Oscar Morales who led the famous march against FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], you know, coming into our offices, being led around by the communications team, meeting Mark Zuckerberg, you know, telling us about how it is that he had built this march through our platform.

That’s kind of that first moment that I arrived and we started to really think about Facebook in a completely different way. I think my biggest hesitation when I first was asked to join the company is did it have a mission that was as powerful and as transformative as Google’s mission, you know, which was, of course, to organize the world’s information. To me, that really had impact. And I was a little worried when I was first asked to join the Facebook team whether or not Facebook had a big enough mission.

And of course, looking back that sounds like a silly concern. But at its time in 2008, Facebook was just still on the cusp of a place that was just sharing with family and friends to a place where real change was playing out in the world. A huge part of my job was to respond to every request that came from journalists outside of the United States of America. So any request that came into the alias called I was responsible for figuring out how to respond and what to do with.

And what were most of the things that you were fielding at that point in time from international journalists?

So the fascination story and the growth story. You know, Facebook was, I think, initially perceived very much as an American thing, as a college student thing. And what we … at the time were seeing is that 70 percent of Facebook users by then came from outside the United States. And so the company was extremely interested in sharing that story.

I remember working with some of the executives at the time on how it is that they would frame Facebook when they were speaking to journalists from outside the United States. And one of the phrases we always wanted to build in was “Facebook is connecting the world,” you know, not just the United States, not just a few countries. It was on a mission to actually connect the world and that global growth piece was the biggest piece that we were hoping to share.

I would say from the outside, journalists would come to our offices. You know, I played a huge role in hosting, literally, just hosting them to see where is this all taking place, you know. What is this company creating? There was a fascination, an excitement. How do I become part of this? How do we get close to this? And we had 13 offices dotted all around Palo Alto, you know, in the Silicon Valley. So every employee at Facebook would just be running between offices every day, just trying to get our work done across all different teams and organizations.

And what was their mission at that point in time? I mean you said in retrospect it’s clear there was a mission, but did that develop or how did that mission develop?

Yeah. I believe making the world more open and connected was probably already built into the mission. And actually I’m not even sure. I think that they’ve slightly tweaked the mission and extended it a bit since I left the communications team. In 2011, I transitioned over from the communications team. But there was definitely a very clear mission and I was really quite impressed when I first joined Facebook in 2008, how personally invested Mark was in his mission.

You know, in the Silicon Valley you have all different kinds of founders. And some, once that product from an engineering and technical perspective starts to take off, the founders either remain purely involved in the tech piece or start to check out because they’ve been acquired or because the growth story is already there; that they can just kind of do their own thing. And I very distinctly remember sitting in the first question and answer session that I went to with Mark. I mean there were not that many people in the room because there were 700 employees at the time. But not that many people went to the Q&A’s back then.

So there were just a small grouping of us and, of course, I went because I was doing my diligent student, you know, new girl mode to participate with a group of 20 or so people listening to Mark’s Q&A. And I, you know, the first week on the job, I just listened to him talk about his own company and his aspirations to grow the company. And I just thought, wow, he really, really believes in this place. And that was inspiring.

The belief was in what at that point in time?

Connecting everyone in the world to a single platform, you know, just going for that growth story – that belief that one day everyone is going to be connected on a single place and a single platform, and that’s going to change the world … So from my perspective at least, growth was at the heart of what Facebook was doing at the time. And the really exciting story that we were sharing as more and more populations and more and more countries were discovering Facebook and in some contexts even seeing Facebook as the internet. And that was probably most exciting of all.

And even at that time was there any hesitation about the idea of connecting the world to a single platform? Was there any kind of hesitation about the power of that or …

Well, there was certainly, at least, well, from my perspective and especially when I moved out to Europe. There was a very strong sense of: This is a really big deal and we need to get it right. But I don’t, I wouldn’t say that there was a hesitation. There is a feeling and this is a California feeling, actually, that growth and scale is going to be a good thing in the long term and we’ll deal with the challenges as they come.

And I actually think that is part of the magic of the Silicon Valley that is not always well understood outside the rest of the world. It’s not necessarily this kind of sinister grand plan. It’s that if we grow and if we scale, good things are going to happen.

Is that, I mean one of the words that’s been used about it is “disruption,” right, and so I mean was disruption a word that was something that you heard at the time?

See, I feel as though disruption came into being a little bit later on. Disruption became the way that people described Facebook. I would say at the time the mantra of “you just move fast, break things but get things done” was the way that Facebook ticked at least.

The Facebook Culture

And what do you mean by kind of – I mean, I know what you mean, but what do you mean by the California ethos? What is that? Expound on that for me.

I see this a lot as a … I’m originally from California but now I’ve lived in this region – Europe, Middle East, Africa region – for seven years and I see both sides as being equally important. What this region of the world tends to do very well is take a look at the potential nuance that is not always positive and go through those nuances in advance of making a decision to really carefully think through: OK, what is everything that could go wrong? There’s something really special about that because it’s a thoughtful approach to how it is that you build a business.

California tends to just say, “You know what? Whatever challenges come up, we’ll deal with those along the way.” But because California has a certain ethos of just building, creating, innovating, because there is that slight bubble atmosphere going on, you don’t really have every, you know, culture in the world or every challenge in the world represented out there. There’s more freedom to experiment with actually less awareness or sensitivity as to what could go wrong. And I think sometimes that’s a problem. And I think sometimes it’s a really good thing that there’s a part [of] the world that exists where people just innovate without necessarily seeing every downside, because sometimes it’s the nuance of every downside of innovation that holds people back from just going for it.

And I suppose the wonderful thing about our world today is that we have both because both sides need each other.

What about, what about the kind of culture of youth? I mean here you were, you were just out of college basically. Right? I mean a year, a year and a half out of college. I mean Mark was young, you all were young. Right? Tell me about that culture as well.

Yeah. Well, I remember actually the Facebook holiday party in 2010. I took my mom as my date. And at the end of the holiday party – it was so much fun, it was at the Academy of Sciences – mom said, you know, “I was the oldest person at that holiday party.” And immediately I’m thinking, I was like, “No, mom, there’s no way that’s true.” And then of course, I went through in my head all of senior management and realized every member of the senior management team was at least 10 to 20 years younger than my mother at the time.

So there is definitely the culture of youth at that company. But you know, equally I think, at least from my perspective, because so much of senior management was the next generation from those of us that were coming into the company fresh, in parts those of us that had just graduated from university felt as though that level of management didn’t get us. We treated these tech companies like our college campuses. You know, we spent all of our time together. And so much of the next level of management couldn’t quite wrap their head around why are all of the associates spending their weekends together going to the movies and going on all of our cultural experiences as we were learning our way around San Francisco? You know, they’re colleagues.

They are supposed to have friends. And we didn’t really see the distinction, especially in the Google days. Thirty of us were hired straight out of university into Google and we translated our university campus experience straight into the Google campus experience where we were all working together but we were also all friends. And that was something that senior management never could quite understand. Why don’t the associates just have their own lives? Why are they all creating a college-like atmosphere together?

… In part what you seem to be describing is that there is a Silicon Valley bubble that people are in just by virtue of the fact that it’s kind of isolated from the rest of the world. Right? So tell me.

Yeah, there’s a Silicon Valley ethos. Absolutely. And the farther away from it, the more clearly you see it. You know, scale, everything is framed in terms of scale. Opportunity, everything is framed in terms of opportunity. Ideas. You know, what I really notice, especially now that I’ve been away from Silicon Valley for a while, is that the minute you enter into conversation with a Silicon Valley-based individual, you throw out one concept and you get 10 ideas back.

And that culture of ideas and that culture, I would say as well, of experimentation. And this is something that goes deep into Facebook’s product theory early on, which was a culture of saying you throw out a new product, you see how people misuse that product, and then you create the experience that you know people want to create. That’s the essence of hacker culture to me and that’s the side of the Silicon Valley that I think most traditional businesses, governments, institutions just can’t wrap their head around because that kind of ethos just doesn’t really exist as much as it does in the Silicon Valley. And in the Silicon Valley, everyone has it. And if you’re not attracted to that, you tend to leave and work for these companies but out of different environments.

Facebook’s Global Reach

… Let’s go back for a minute to how it is that you ended up, you know, in this global role. Yeah, what prompted that?

Yeah. So my first few years at Facebook were, as you know, on the international communications team. And the initial spark for the work that I ended up doing actually came about from the Chilean earthquake in 2009, when we realized, the company realized, that everyone across the Pacific Rim region that was affected by the earthquake was turning to Facebook to get information, share news, figure out what was going on. And someone on the team made the comment at the time, you know: It’s really unfortunate that we don’t have a better relationship with the diplomatic community in these countries because what they don’t realize is people are looking for information from their embassies and from their consulates on how to get help in this emergency situation, and the authorities that know how to get help are not there.

And I sat there and thought, oh, my goodness, somebody needs to tell them. If we don’t tell them, who is? And that was my initial concept. So what ended up becoming the Politics and Government Division for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region actually began as an idea to train up the global community of embassies, consulates, diplomats on realizing what was happening in terms of how it is that people were looking for information to just say: Look, you’ve got to be in this space and you’ve got to be in the space now because the train has already left the station. It’s almost already too late. So get on board.

And was part of your role in how you kind of have to think inside the company in terms of like the growth aspect – like the more people on this the more engagement? That was the whole metric. Tell me about this, sort of how, why it was that you wanted everybody to be on it at that point. I mean what, why?

Yeah. Well, a lot of that. I can’t speak for Mark, but I think a lot of that vision I would certainly peg to Mark Zuckerberg and seeing him really internalizing what it means to actually connect everybody to a single platform. But I’m not Mark. I can’t speak for him. But I very much felt as though that was aligned to the mission of our founder and CEO at the time.

And that was a mission that you really believed in?

How could you not? How exciting! I think that’s one of the most exciting elements of being part of Facebook at the time. What if we really can connect the world? And what if connecting the world actually delivered a promise that we’ve been looking for to genuinely make the world a better place?

And so yes, I think that that was probably exciting for all of us who are part of it. And even when really, really deep challenges flared up (which they did all the time, you know, at a company like Facebook), when you do have that many people connected to a single platform you’re going to have a crisis every single day.

And yet by and large, when you’re inside the company what you really have a great sensitivity to is that the positive does far outweigh the negative. You know, here in London far less people are in the business of committing crimes than people are just leading their lives. And so of course, you know, it’s often the negative that makes the news because that’s the story. But what you see when you’re on the inside of the company is, by and large, people were and still are using Facebook to share their vacation photos and keep in touch with friends and family and, you know, share mundane posts about their morning yoga session. And that is for the most part what Facebook was about.

Facebook And Political Campaigns

And at that point in time was there already a push to get politicians onto Facebook or involved in Facebook? So tell me about that idea and where that kind of came from.

Yeah. So the politics story actually, I would say, in America really began in 2007 and ’08 leading up to Obama’s first election. I don’t remember if it was, I think it was 2006 that “You” was named the Person of the Year by Time magazine, sometime around then. But YouTube was becoming the repository of, you know, people asking questions of their elected officials of the gotcha video during a campaign. So the relationship between user-generated content and politics was dominated by YouTube I would say [in] 2007 and ’08.

And I actually remember coming over to Facebook in 2008, thinking you guys could be doing so much more in this space, because I was coming from the YouTube world. But Facebook’s products didn’t really support the political narrative as much as YouTube’s products did at the time. … And then I would say probably, but I wasn’t really focused on domestic politics. I was [in] an international communications role until I left for London. But from 2008 to 2011, when I left for Europe, I would say probably was more of a ramp-up period for Facebook to say: OK, what do we do with the narrative around elected officials, you know, looking to run their campaigns through Facebook?

What’s unfortunate though is that so much of that story I would say in the early days of Facebook as it related to politics was politicians were using the service to get elected. That’s not enough. You know, getting elected is one thing but that’s not changing your fundamental relationship with how you’re communicating with the people that you represent. And that’s the biggest potential in this space. And I think that was the reframing of the social contract that citizens were looking for.

You know, “Talk to us. We want to be part of who you are.” But from a real perspective, from a person’s perspective, not from a campaign-message perspective. And that was something I felt because I had the exposure to the Europe, Middle East and Africa region that I very much saw in parallel to the U.S. and elected officials in the U.S. thinking about social media as where they campaigned and got elected. In my region the most forward-thinking players on social media were parliaments, were ministries of foreign affairs thinking about digital diplomacy and nation branding, were the organizations like Radio Free Europe who were using Facebook to get out messages to people in environments with restricted access to media and controlled messages coming from the state.

And so you know, in 2011 the primary lens through which I saw the potential for social change, politics, government to play out on Facebook actually had very little to do with elections and campaigns. And it was my view that the election and campaign narrative that was playing out in America didn’t do justice to the potential of this space to reframe how it is that citizens engage with their leaders or with other citizens that can help them rise the boat in the tide.

The Arab Spring

… Let’s talk about the Arab Spring for a second because it’s such a pivotal moment. And you know, bring me into the Arab Spring and what you and Facebook were doing at the time in terms of your work and being in Cairo and what was happening.

Yeah. So initially when I moved out to London in January 2011, you know, this was the time that the Arab Spring was essentially coined and that the news media was covering these uprisings across the Amina region. And the initial conversation, of course, was the news media placing a huge emphasis on the role that platforms like Facebook, like Twitter, social media generally were playing in the Arab Spring. And the company, I would say rightly so, was really careful not to be entering a space of somehow seeming to take credit for what was seen as a positive societal movement at the time.

But at the same time, once I started going out into the countries that were affected by the Arab Spring and meeting with the activists and civil society leaders that were very much part of it, most of them would just come up to me and say, you know, “Wow, Facebook, you know, this was huge. We couldn’t have done this without you guys.”

Some government officials would say, “Does Facebook really realize how much you guys are changing our societies?”

It depended on your perspective towards the Arab Spring how you viewed that. But from on the ground the connection to societal change and the role that platform technologies were playing in it was very much part of the story from the people who were who were affected by it. There were also times in some of the countries that were not necessarily directly affected by the Arab Spring but could have been, where I actually heard from senior staffers that their senior-most government representatives actually wanted to get more involved in opening up on this space. But it was their spokespeople that were actually holding them back.

So it was a hugely mixed bag. Some people were just, you know, going straight into this space and saying: We need to open up. Others were trying to open up but actually it was their staff that were saying: Oh, we’re not ready for this. We need more of a strategy.

And some governments were closing …

And some governments were closing down. Exactly. It was a little bit of everything.

So tell me how it is that you end up in Cairo during this?

Yeah. So after the first revolution, the team at the prime minister’s office invited me out to essentially, you know, talk about how it is that now that they’re in office, they had directly, the communications team and the prime minister himself, expressed to me that they so clearly understood the power of social media and people’s real desire to participate more openly in the political process in the new government. And so how was it that we as a government actually go into this space in a completely new way?

And it was that Prime Minister, Prime Minister [Hesham] Qandil who actually was the first representative I can remember to host a Facebook Q&A, a question and answer session, with people in the comments section of his Facebook page. And you know, there was a real awareness I would say across the entire region that we have to be more proactive in this space or we are going to get behind.

And generally speaking, the farther away you got from an established democracy the more urgency you saw, which for me was a little bit frightening as well. Thinking back to the States, I mean this is technology that comes from America. And yet the farther away you got from America’s political environment, the more you actually saw a real understanding of how it is that government officials and politicians needed to use it.

I’ll ask you a series of things about concerns over the course of the interview. But were there concerns expressed to you or did you have concerns about governments using Facebook for more nefarious reasons or not for good reasons, authoritarian regimes having this extremely powerful tool? Were those concerns a part of your purview at that time?

The thing with Facebook is anybody can be on Facebook. And so at the time I would say: Look, if you’re an authoritarian regime you already are using the media to get out whatever message you want to get out to people. So I would say at the time the opposite was true in that for the first time it felt in potentially history, there was a huge global platform where anybody with an idea could get that idea out and get it heard.

So in a way it was almost a counternarrative to what you’re describing. You know, if you’re going to be an authoritarian regime, of course you’re going to use Facebook. But you know what? So can the guy next door. And in a large part our job is to keep it up and available because as long as Facebook is up and available for everybody to use, then the people get to start writing their own narrative.

And when you’re thinking about a scaled platform or technology, as long as the good outweighs the bad you’re moving into a positive direction. But the nuances of these conversations got really, really deep. So one of the discussions that we had, for example, at the headquarters of Radio Free Europe was how can we create an experience where people can follow our pages but without actually it being visible that they were following our pages, because in sensitive countries across which Radio Free is working, you don’t want to have an environment where you’re broadcasting that you’re following these pages to get your information. And of course, there wasn’t a way to do that at the time. I don’t think there still is.

That was the level of nuance that we had here. And that was much more the lens and the perspective that I would say we actually saw. As long as Facebook is up and available anyone can use it.

But were there groups, for instance, that you wouldn’t, or were there groups or politicians that you wouldn’t meet with for reasons of their politics or their position of power?

Well, I would say generally speaking, I wouldn’t really enter into a country that I felt I didn’t have a really clear understanding that I wouldn’t inadvertently get involved in politics that I didn’t understand. And so there were absolutely countries that I didn’t have enough of a grasp on politically to feel comfortable going into. And otherwise I would say often you’re just not invited anyway by these countries. You know, I was never invited by the Uzbeks to go into Uzbekistan. And so that just didn’t didn’t necessarily happen.

But you could’ve been invited, for instance, by an Uzbek civil society group to go to Uzbekistan, right? Or to train someone there?

Yeah, and actually I did reach a lot of Central Asian civil society leaders in Almaty, Kazakhstan which was a pan-regional event that brought in civil society leaders from across the entire region. Regional events were always good because the scale of the region was so huge that whatever you could do at a regional level was really helpful.

So how, what would the end of the kind of Arab Spring story be, just to go back to that? I mean, so you were there with them with the prime minister at the time who, and it was a short-lived…

It was.

But how did that end, I mean, if you had to end that story?

Well, in a way I would say the Arab Spring narrative is probably still going. You know, I think a big unresolved question that we have in the space of societal change as it plays out on platform technology, and especially, especially Facebook because it’s the biggest, is: How do we actually take this amazing space for open dialogue and communications and channel it into something that affects policies for the better? That’s always the link that we’re still struggling to figure out.

And I think in large part it’s because this began as a communications space. We sometimes miss the boat on thinking about it as being a policymaking environment. But if you have all of the group of activists in a region that have used Facebook to enact the first wave of change in their country, how do you nuance and clarify and finish that story? That’s really, really, really hard. And I think it’s really hard because the volume is such that you have every possible voice represented versus a select few, you know, sitting down in a room to say how do we figure this out, which sometimes is really scary and sometimes really good depending on your perspective.

Facebook’s Misinformation Problem

I don’t want to harp on problems but I just, I’m kind of curious about what things were being realized at what time. But in terms of, you know, you’re painting a very positive view of Facebook and clearly the good outweighing the bad. But what sorts of problems were evident at that point in time globally that you were recognizing on the ground in Middle East, Africa and Europe that were of concern to you about, you know, whether this platform was solely a force for good or there were other things that needed to be dealt with?

Yeah. So I think one of the one of the big concerns that would always come up throughout the region was a sense of what happens when you confront the worst of your society and then those messages get amplified. What do you do about that? What do you do about comments on your Facebook page that genuinely make you feel uncomfortable and potentially turn you off the platform? What do you do about the spread of rumors and false information? We tend to think that this is a new thing, but it’s only a new thing because it’s come home to roost in America.

You know, when I was out in the field [in] 2011, ’12, ’13, so many country representatives were expressing to me a huge concern about the ability of rumors to spread on Facebook. And what do you do about that? And how is that reported? But then if it gets reported, how is that assessed, especially in a space that values freedom of expression, freedom of speech? And so sorting through all of that was very challenging. Another –

Sorry, just to stop you there. How did you respond to that at the time? What did you say to country representatives who were worried about the spread of misinformation, for instance?

We didn’t have a solution for it. And so the best that I could do is report back to headquarters that this is something that I was hearing on the ground because there wasn’t at the time … You know, Facebook has only just recently set up this coalition of journalists and academics to assess how it is that they handle this space. But none of that was available at the time. So that was a message that I would bring back from the field.

And what sort of response would you get from headquarters about problems like that?

You know, I … It’s impossible to be specific about that because it was always just kind of: This is what I’m hearing, this is what’s going on. But I think in a company where the, the people that could have actually, you know, had an impact on making those decisions, [they] are not necessarily seeing it firsthand. And one thing that I think is especially important – it was important at the time, it’s important in any business – is as leaders gain more and more authority within an organization, there is a tendency then for visits out to the field to be quite choreographed. And it’s really important, and I say this for any leader in any business not just Facebook, but sometimes you actually have to be a little bit scrappier. You have to just have the team not plan, you know, so carefully the trip and just go out and talk to people and see what’s going on, because a huge part of why I knew some of the issues that were flaring up on Facebook was simply because I was there, you know, in really scrappy, dicey, you know, conference rooms where you had to fiddle with the equipment to even get the power. Or sometimes the power didn’t even work.

I think it was the entire training program in Kiev, we never did get the power actually to work, to show any slides. So we just talked. But you have to be in those environments in order to actually feed that back. And something I specifically remember from 2011 was already the conversation around people asking what does Facebook mean for democracy. We didn’t know. We didn’t have that answer to that question. And I think it’s a good thing that, you know, Facebook is thinking about this now. But that was already the conversation that was happening in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region on the ground at the time.

Facebook’s Reaction To Warnings

… Let’s go back to Morocco in 2012. So what was happening on the ground there that you were kind of recognizing or being told about?

So one of the organizations that I partnered with to reach civil society leaders was TechCamp. And TechCamp came out of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton at the time, Secretary of State’s digital initiative. I can’t remember actually what it was specifically called. But the whole theme behind that, as expressed by [Senior Adviser on Innovation] Alec Ross who was leading this whole initiative at the time, was humble foreign policy – foreign policy, diplomacy that is not about state to state but people to state.

And I had a lot of respect for the TechCamp program because it partnered with local embassies to bring together civil society leaders from across a region, usually a fairly big region, to learn from companies in the tech space on how it is that they could do a better job of using 21st century tools to get their messages heard.

The BBC would send a representative, you know, to talk about how it is that they could up their game and journalistic techniques to get picked up by international news. Tech companies that specialized in keeping people safe online and security which, of course, is a huge concern online for civil society leaders who would come. And I would prioritize TechCamp because I always felt as though it was hugely impactful not only to equip the people in positions of leadership but the people who aspire to positions of leadership or simply to do something small to make their communities better. You know, like ensuring that there’s enough landlords in a community to rent out apartments to everyone, no matter what ethnicity you come from.

And I remember specifically the TechCamp program in Rabat in Morocco, which brought together the civil society leaders from across North Africa where I had a number of people come up to me at that event expressing how concerned they were about rumors spreading online and specifically on Facebook. Now sometimes the context of a rumor spreading on Facebook …

There was a very famous incident of this in Kashmir in probably 2009 or ’10, where the government’s response is to turn off access to Facebook. That aggravates the problem because if the rumor begins on social media and then you don’t have access to social media, all you know is that this rumor is still existing. But in this particular case the rumors – I remember one conversation with one civil society leader – were talking about, were not particularly revolutionary but were very specific. It was something about, you know, her brother and, you know, a piece of news that someone was spreading about her brother to discredit him. And then what do you do in that situation?

And interestingly, you know, just recently in California this exact topic came up, but from Californians expressing a concern that in America if somebody actually takes your profile enough information about you, uses that to express a point of view in a part of the country you’re not even from, you know, that could actually over time discredit what it is that you personally believe.

And these activists in my region were on the front lines of, you know, spotting corners of Facebook that the rest of the world, the rest of the company wasn’t yet talking about, because again, in a company that’s built off numbers and metrics and measurements, anecdotes sometimes got lost along the way. And that was always a real challenge and always bothered me.

How do we actually elevate anecdotes that happen enough that they become patterns, that they become themes, but in a way that we as a company begin to address?

So what were the main themes or patterns that you were seeing in the field being on the ground that you thought deserved more discussion inside Facebook?

Yeah. I think one of them certainly was no one really knew how it is that they could take what they were, what they had access to, what they could learn from Facebook, and wrap any sense of understanding around that. So if you had a really, really, really big Facebook page and, you know, people from all over a country, say, had a state Facebook page at a head of state level, those pages can get quite big. Loads of people are leaving comments on them. But then there was no way to really place any framing around those comments.

You could, of course, use your Insights tools to see, you know, what country people came from or how old they were. But you couldn’t really analyze what people cared about at scale. And that’s a real problem because that kind of hinders the ability for this space to be used for anything. You know, if you go out there and you say, “This is my policy. What do you think?” and loads of people respond but you don’t have a way to conceptualize what that response looks like, you know, over time, people are going to stop responding because they don’t see an output on whatever it was that you had put forth.

And then of course, the other angle, and this is just a real challenge for the tech community broadly is, you know, Facebook very much was and is near to the real world. And that means that you also have bad actors in this space that are out to do harm. And it’s extremely challenging to police that across the volume of countries and regions that Facebook worked across. Answering those questions was always extremely challenging.

But that was something that was on your radar screen as early as 2011, 2012, was bad actors on the platform.

Oh, well, yes. Yeah. Because I mean, you know, in so many of the countries that I worked across these are some of the spaces where you saw the earliest sensitivity to what it is that that would look like.

What did it look like?

Well, for my perspective, see, it would usually bubble up from concerns of, I would say, almost always at the ministerial level, is where it would bubble up; more even than the political level because politicians were so busy making sure that they were getting their messages out there. They were the ones that were less sensitive to it. So I would say [at] the ministerial level you would often see, you know, concerns around, you know, military thinking about how it is that they keep their soldiers safe when their friends and family are posting on Facebook about where they are.

Or you would see civil society leaders really concerned about friending each other and then realizing that the friend that you had just friended is actually a plant from a more sinister organization. And how is it that you actually can ensure that you’re verifying who you’re accepting and what friend request you’re accepting is safe? And even more so, what happens if your own government hacks into your Facebook page and then exposes all of your friends? And because all of your friends were known to participate in an anti-government organization, you know, their lives are on the line.

These are extremely deep, complex, life-threatening issues that play out in the real world and that were playing out in this, you know, in this new medium and in this new space as well.

Could the company in your opinion have been more proactive in kind of confronting the problems that were emerging at that time?

So I think in some spaces the company was really good at being proactive in figuring out how to address some of these corners of the web. And you know, in the bullying space, for example, trying to figure out how to handle that. In the suicide space, I mean in a lot of these spaces that really are nasty elements of society and of social media, I think they did very well. I think that I would say that the biggest challenge probably that Facebook leadership had is in understanding where it stood on the big philosophical question of Facebook’s relationship to democratic movements, to individual empowerment, to the reframing of the role between government and leader and nonstate actor, you know.

As a private company, Facebook essentially does have a foreign policy of its own and it has to, you know. And that foreign policy has to be pretty strong because you actually do need to set your principles out there and say this is what we believe in. And I was one of the ambassadors across a huge and very complex region to represent what Facebook foreign policy looked like and then translate back the reactions to it.

And I certainly think, of course, there could have been even more conversations back at headquarters around what we were seeing in the region. But at the same time, you know, looking back there was just so much going on that, you know, it’s almost not helpful I don’t think to say who or what could have done more. Everything was happening at once. But I was particularly sensitive to it.

So as you were saying, as one of the only people out there …

Yeah. Well, as Facebook’s really one of our only ambassadors that was out in Europe, Middle East, Africa region at the time, I was exposed to the kinds of issues, positive and negative, you know, people relied more out in my region on Facebook to change their lives for the better because they were desperate for hope. People also had exposure to the worst that was potentially playing out on Facebook and its ability to propagate rumors or to spread misinformation.

And I think what’s interesting is, and perhaps this is true of just an ambassadorial-type role, you get a real understanding of what’s going on in the field. But we didn’t always have the mechanism to get that viewpoint back into headquarters. And I remember one specific conversation, you know, back in California when I was just at the height of traversing the region right in the wake of the Arab Spring where people were coming to me in scores saying: Does Facebook really understand -the Facebook leadership really understand how much it’s changing our societies? And I asked that question to a colleague out in headquarters and the colleague sort of looked at me like: I don’t even know how to begin answering that question.

And I think much earlier on we did need to have a company view on what that meant and how to partner with the world to say we actually don’t have the answers. We don’t know where this is going. But we need to partner with the best of the best to figure this out and create a philosophy around Facebook that went beyond growth, because by then the growth story was going and moved into a more philosophical, more nuanced space of what we actually want to do with the incredible volume of people that we’re connecting on the platform.

Facebook’s Politics And Government Program

…Can you talk about the fact that you had an idea internally of trying to engage with, you know, the good, bad and the ugly at Facebook at the time?

Well, yeah. So I’m trying to think how to – So, I’ve always had a – no, I’ll start again. I’ve never had a background in politics and so I always found myself, especially in 2011, gravitating into this space of how it is that digital diplomacy was playing out on Facebook; what soft power looked like on Facebook, how it is that ministries – even ministries of agriculture – You know, the Danish tax authority was using Facebook to take pictures of park benches that were funded by Danish, you know, tax money essentially, kroner, to say, you know, this is the impact of paying your taxes.

I mean this space was so multifaceted and, you know, so much of that really warranted wrapping our head around where it is that the world’s most powerful nonstate actor and government and the people affected by that relationship between the two intersected. And the original concept, of course, behind the Politics and Government Program was to build out different kinds of networks of leaders in that space because I knew all of them, you know, and they were all part of the same conversation but based in different places. And then eventually for me evolved into how it is that we create a think tank to actually address not only all of the incredible ways that society was connecting to each other on Facebook but also the real, real challenging issues that organizations like the International Organization for Migration were saying, based out of Geneva, on how it is that the connected world was impacting their space, that needed the kind of leadership that I think Facebook could have, can, and is now offering to address these questions.

At the time would you have liked Facebook, for instance, to kind of address the question as to, in either good or bad ways, how it was affecting democracy?

Absolutely. I think that would have been a fascinating question for Facebook to take the leadership on. What we have to remember, though, is that executive leadership at a company like Facebook tends to route through environments that don’t necessarily have a strong culture of think tankery. That kind of question is a question that comes naturally in environments where convening and charting out big ideas that don’t necessarily have a number behind them, that don’t have a monetization strategy behind them tend to thrive.

And so I think it was only natural that as somebody based in London that’s very good at bringing people together to chart out the big ideas … If there’s anything the Brits do, it’s having conversations about the big issues. And yet with exposure to such a diverse region where in any given week, you know, it would be a hop from Addis Ababa into Almaty, Kazakhstan, over to Oslo back through Brussels and then London again.

So that combination between actually having the grasp on what was going on in the region meets an environment like London where you have an international group of people, you know, really committed to having the conversation, it was a natural space for me to think this is exactly the sorts of conversations that Facebook can and should be having. We owe it to the world. And at the time, the world wanted the company to play that role. They wanted us to have that kind of position. It wasn’t like it is now.

What was the response you’d get from headquarters to an idea like we should be looking at what effect we’re having on democracies, for instance?

I think to be honest, I just don’t think the company was ready yet in a way that they are ready now. And sometimes it takes exposure directly into some of these regions to see that. You know, as far as I know, you know, a lot of the countries that I visited, of course, were not on, quote “the priority list” of a classical business. They were only on my priority list because Facebook serviced the world. And so I felt I owed it to my region to be part of that.

So part of it is exposure and then part of it is the very natural, sometimes it does take a crisis to figure out where it is that an organization needs to go. And so I think now that so many of these issues have hit home in the U.S. context and in the U.S. environment, the need for Facebook to play a leadership role in some of these big issues, especially the challenges, is quite stark, whereas at the time it was just, you know, it was just me running around Europe, Middle East and Africa, you know, flagging up some of what it was that I was seeing anecdotally from the field.

Facebook And Privacy

… I mean, one of the things that’s obviously playing out right now is major questions about privacy. But those things were playing out in Europe much earlier.


And so I mean, how big a deal was it in terms of your job for fielding concerns in Europe about privacy? And you know, [Austrian Facebook antagonist] Max Schrems [in] 2011, 2012, is kind of saying, “Hey, Facebook’s violating European privacy law. What are we going to do about this?” Describe the environment at the time.

Yeah. Well, usually these questions came up in, I would say, mostly in Western Europe about privacy concerns. And then in countries especially affected by the Arab Spring where civil society was quite active at the time, it was security. So either the Q&A would be all security all the time or all privacy all the time. I was never, though, deeply involved in the privacy space. Facebook has a chief privacy officer; all of those questions came through their team. And so the philosoph-, the philosophy behind, you know, sharing as being a good thing, versus privacy by default, you know, being a good thing was always there. But I never was, aside from answering, you know, questions in a way that was appropriate for the company, I never really represented, I wouldn’t say, more than that in the privacy conversation in Europe.

The skepticism around Facebook from a number of countries in Europe was really hard to take. I would say as an American, and especially as a Californian, one of the first things I had to do to do my job well is build up my armor around skeptical, you know, Europeans worrying that Facebook was changing their entire way of doing business, especially at the parliamentary level. The questions were tough. One even said, “I’m not going to get on Facebook until” – you know, they were half joking but – “you sign a contract that Facebook is always going to be the number one social media platform because I just can’t keep changing and changing and changing my communications style, you know, to meet the changing nature of the world.” That’s not the kind of conversation you would have in California where the mentality is the more change the better. And you know, dealing with that mentality is something that I very quickly had to, had to adapt to.

Well, what about a skepticism about privacy, for instance? Like how big a deal was Max Schrems in the, in the European Facebook conversation?

So I would say a very big deal, but in targeted circles. So you know, if I were going in to do a workshop for all of the communications leagues for a, you know, for a government, so you’d have, you know, one representative for each of the ministries. I mean, you know, the Max Schrems conversation just wouldn’t even come up. And then occasionally, you know, in a conversation with a specific minister, they would ask me. But Max, the whole debate around privacy and what Max Schrems was doing to refrain the company’s relationship with European law, that was not the sort of conversation that I found myself regularly addressing. You know, I was there to help people understand how to use Facebook to connect with people, and we tended to just not get into that too much, if I’m honest. That was more of my colleagues on the policy side of the team that were having those conversations day in and day out. …

Were – I mean, in creating relationships with government leaders, was part of the mission to create those friends, so to speak, in government and to stave off potential regulation to kind of create good relationships so that it would be a friendlier regulatory environment?

Well, certainly part of it was to create a relationship with people, you know, no matter what. I mean having a government official who is getting on Facebook in a, you know, in a big way in the early days just encouraged more and more people to see this as a space where real and serious issues were, were playing out. And of course, if that brought along more awareness as to the potential positive impact of Facebook because more citizens were engaged and then more people in positions of power were engaged, then that’s great.

But I had, I had a lot of artistic license into how to build the Government and Politics Division. And one of the things that was really important to me personally was to build an integrity to that program. So one of the reasons I personally chose to participate so heavily in training Reporters Without Borders or in training up local councilors or in going out to Erbil, Iraq, and working with civil society leaders there, is because in the, in the broader context of the company, you know, those individuals were not part of a huge regulatory debate. They were not part of some of the countries that were the biggest volume of active users. I certainly didn’t go to Moldova because Moldova had the greatest number [amount] of potential ad spend or the potential number of active users or the regulation to bring down the rest of Europe.

I made those decisions, and I almost hesitate saying this but it’s true. I made those decisions because I saw the willingness and the desire to actually do something truly transformative at Facebook so much greater in a country like Moldova than in a country like Germany, France or the U.K.; and in a way that, you know, I think that would, to a lot of people in the Western democratic environment, that would be like: Well, hey, how disappointing. But the truth is that the drive, the really sincere drive, from the e-government team in Moldova was one of saying: Look, it’s not good enough just to get on Facebook, to tick a box. This is actually going to open up our societies. And one particular politician actually said to me [as] I was sitting in her office … She was the deputy speaker of the house of parliament and I was sitting in her office in Moldova’s capital city, Chisinau. And she had her iPad out and she was showing me her Facebook page and she said, “You know, Elizabeth, what I love most is when people come to my Facebook page to criticize my policies because that is the greatest expression of how far my country has come.”

And you know, a politician in most of the countries in Western Europe, dare I say even the United States of America, wouldn’t even come close to framing their relationship in that transformative a way. And to me, that’s what matters almost more than anything. And what I would do is I would take those stories back to the U.K., back in to France and Germany and Denmark and say, you know, the Moldovans get it. You know, not, of course, not all of them. It was a tiny percentage of them. But these forward-leaning Moldovans are yards ahead of you in understanding what the real potential of this space is. It’s time to up your game.

Facebook And Political Campaigns

Now I mean, you’re kind of bringing out the greatest of what this platform had to offer. I mean, you’re trying to train and do that. There was a shift that happened internally and I think inside the company. And I’m just kind of curious, if you can bring me through it as best you can, but where priorities shifted to some degree, you know, away from this mission-driven kind of work that you were doing to more election-driven. Or just describe like this shift that happens [in] 2014 or so and how that felt to you.

Well, I actually think that the election politics narrative was actually the original narrative around Facebook and societal change because far before the Arab Spring we saw the whole election and campaign piece ramping up out of America, whether it was through YouTube or then Facebook and Twitter. So I would say the original narrative of this societal change was this elections piece. But in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, the original narrative started out of a bit of the Arab Spring, but then also started out of a region where the impact, somehow, of ministries was just more important. And I can’t even put my finger on what that was. But I spent so much time in ministries, or I mentioned the police, you know, in police forces where you’re not really talking about, you know, elections and campaigns. So it wasn’t really until, I would say, the U.S. ethos around electioneering and campaigning was something that Facebook wanted to kind of take on the road that that even became a huge emphasis globally and especially not in my region. And I mentioned before, I had huge artistic license to build the Government and Politics Division at the time. …

But in terms of priorities shifting. You know what did it mean that it was, that you said to DC office kind of, or the American wing of things took politics and electioneering on the road? What did that? What is that? What did you mean by that?

Well, I think, so after Obama’s election in 2012, and then inauguration, you know, in 2013, there was a, you know, huge interest within DC and also around the world on, you know, how did Obama actually use Facebook to get, you know, to get elected. And so there was just an enormous interest amongst all kinds of political parties and political leaders to say what did that look like. And so that would be probably the moment when Facebook really proactively shared that narrative internationally.

And what did you think of that?

Well, you know, it’s a, it’s a mixed bag for me because I always felt as though in America, although the use of social media for electioneering and campaigning is very strong, I always felt as though once a politician got in office, at least in terms of how they used Facebook, there wasn’t really a difference in terms of how they were actually doing their jobs. Now I understand people who are close to DC saw in 2012, you know, a huge wave of people that were really active in terms of how technology could play out in government come into DC and create all kinds of programs. But from my perspective, just purely looking at the use of Facebook in an environment to connect to citizens, so often in the States you don’t really see much change. And so I was much less interested in focusing on the narrative of how you get there and more on the narrative of how you have the ongoing conversation with the citizens who were more empowered than ever to to have a voice and to participate in their societies.

Was there a level of discomfort for you about the idea that Facebook would be helping people to get elected as opposed to helping politicians communicate with their citizens? I mean did you, were you worried about the difference of what that priority meant at the time?

It just wasn’t my thing. I just really wanted as much as I could to steer the conversation with the leaders that I was meeting into how it is to have the real transformative approach to this space rather than to play the messaging game of convincing people as to why they should get on board.

… Was Facebook essentially trying to get into the election business, like saying to people running for office, we can help you get elected?

I think the election business for Facebook, as it kind of grew out of the United States, was seen at the time as a really exciting way to showcase how people were participating in politics on the Facebook platform. And so you know, the measurements … Pew Research did a study that – I have to remember now, it’s been a long time since I’ve delivered this message – but that I think it was people are 57 percent more likely to sway someone on their vote if they’re connected on Facebook than any other platform. And that was absolutely part of the narrative that we all delivered all the time to show: Look, you know, if you are active on Facebook, you’re going to actually be talking about politics and therefore influence people on their, on their campaign. So I would say that yes, there was absolutely a sense that more political participation on Facebook meant more people involved in their country’s political process, which means maybe greater voter turnout, which means a more dynamic political atmosphere.

Was it new for Facebook to essentially sort of start selling itself as a way for politicians to help them get elected? I mean, it doesn’t sound like that’s what you saw your role as being.


But was that a growing priority at the company?

I think it was, of course, a priority at the company leading up to the elections in 2012. And you know, every internet company, of course, was involved in that. There was kind of a competition between, oh, here’s our maps showing polling stations powered by Google. Oh, here’s the Twitter numbers that show people talking about this. Oh, but on YouTube we’re still partnering with the debates and here’s what’s going on on Facebook. So every major tech company was very much involved in that story leading up to 2012. From my perspective, that was just a completely separate side of Facebook.

So of course … I was asked all the time, you know, what is it that Obama did to win? And I mean everyone was curious in my region as to what was going on in America. And the fact that Facebook could lead to more civic engagement and political participation was something I talked about all the time. But the genesis of the Government and Politics Division as it started in 2011 for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region didn’t spring from any given election. It sprang from the angle of diplomacy and, you know, how it is that we think about the role and the interaction that societal change and its leaders play out online. So I would just say it’s just two completely different strands of what it is that the priorities were at the time.

… Were you ever expressing concerns back to the States about the idea of getting too deep, too deeply involved in politics?


How so and why?

I didn’t feel as though that was our raison d’etre as a company or as a Politics and Government Program. I felt as though that was missing the real potential of this space. And I remember a specific conversation in Estonia with one of the government leaders there. We were talking about different elements of how politicians and ministries in Estonia – and Estonia’s very forward leaning in this, in the tech space – how is it they were using Facebook. He leaned back in his chair and he just said, “You know, how do we just get beyond this? This is bigger than an election or campaign. This is bigger than, you know, a post and an update and likes and shares. This has the ability to transform our entire society.” That’s the piece I always loved being part of. That is why I was there and that’s why the role of Politics and Government specialists was so unbelievably exciting, because to be exposed to people where that was the perspective of how do we just really take all of us and create something that nobody could have imagined before Facebook came along, that’s, that’s what kept me ticking across my region.

When you sent your concerns to the States, what did you say? What did you say specifically that you were concerned about? And who did you say it to?

Well, that would have all been, you know, part of conversations that I would have through, through the chain of command and through my colleagues.

And what was your concern? What was the specific concern you were talking about though? What were you raising?

I always wanted to and still do like encouraging people and businesses to think about maxing out on their full potential. I think sometimes businesses and organizations have a tendency to narrow the scope of their lens according to what is easier to measure. And I don’t think you can measure a lot of the greatest impact that Facebook was having, but that’s exactly the space that was most exciting to play in – what happens when every citizen of their country suddenly becomes an unofficial diplomat of their country because they are connected to thousands of people, you know, and they’re sharing their updates on Facebook or on Instagram and they’re essentially reflecting back on their nation at a level that used to be confined to an individual that was wealthy enough to travel. I mean, these are huge, transformative, really exciting things and they also get to something that asks the best of our societies. I think unfortunately, so much of the emphasis on an election or a campaign brings out the worst of a society, which is really a shame. I don’t think it has to be that way but it is, you know, ever since George Washington, who didn’t have to go through an election and campaign but he had to go through a revolution, I guess, so what’s worse.

But you know, that sort of nature of power doesn’t always bring out the best in people. And it was exciting to be in a role where I felt as though, no matter where I went, the best was coming out in people. Or if it wasn’t coming out in people, their staff, their teams, the people themselves were pushing for something different.

But elections are measurable and is that …

Well, somebody wins. Right. So yes, by definition an election is always going to be measurable because somebody is going to win and a certain number of people are going to vote. And if that turnout is affected by a number of metrics, then that is clearly measurable. And I do think that encouraging voter turnout on, you know, how can you use social media to encourage more civic participation and voter turnout, that was a huge core piece of my message if a country was going through an election year. That’s obviously a good thing.

… So after the 2012 election of Obama, it was, you know, Romney-Obama in 2012 in the States. Was there a shift at Facebook after the 2012 election when it came to its role in politics?

Well, I think after 2012, the place that Facebook had in being part of a major political campaign, that’s what put it on the map. 2008 was the year of YouTube and elections. 2012 was the year of Facebook and elections and I absolutely think that there was very sincere drive from the company to say: “OK, you know, this was all so exciting. So many people used Facebook to talk about the election. The political parties were active in Facebook to be part of this election. This is a, you know, this is a project, and this project should be brought out and shown to the rest of the world.” Of course, the concern for somebody who works across the region that I worked across is the American election system and the political system in America is very uniquely American and it doesn’t translate to other countries and environments. And of course, especially in, you know, in, in the environment of working with political parties and actually with anybody, I always think the element of excellence of training you get is often down to an individual.

And what I loved about the place and time that I was in is everybody, you know, no matter what country you’re in or what political party you were or what minister you were, you always got the same presentation and the same person. And I would come and go within an hour or an hour and a half of doing my thing. And I actually think that was quite healthy because in a way, although so many political parties in the Europe, Middle East and Africa [region] wanted more, you know, can’t you bring what the Americans were doing in DC into our country? The answer was just very clearly no because that’s just not how we do things here. And I really believed that I owed it to the integrity of the Politics and Government Division as it applied to the Europe, Middle East and Africa region to keep it that way.

And what was happening elsewhere?

You know, I’m not really sure because I wasn’t, I wasn’t there. So I think in other elections in other parts of the world there was probably a different approach that was set by the global, by the global team, you know, partnering, of course, with organizations to spread the word on registering to vote and encouraging people to ensure that, look, it’s all very well and good if you talk about politics on Facebook, but if you’re not registered to vote it’s not going to count. I was always very much a fan of that working with electoral commissions across across the region. But I felt as though Facebook was part of a deeper story. It was part of a deeper societal shift and the demand to help people understand what that meant, how to handle it, how to navigate it. You know, one of the requests that I often got from politicians and government leaders was just: Can you help us understand what are people doing now, how are they thinking, and how is society using this space differently? Facebook had so much to offer, you know, in that. And I think that only now the company has realized that that is the bigger priority.

Whereas at the time you’re saying that their priorities shifted to elections and campaigns, away from kind of the empowerment of all aspects of the society.

I think for the Politics and Government Division specifically, you know, after the Obama election there was a huge uptick in saying, you know, “Right, let’s figure out how we can max out on the elections piece,” and that very much correlated to the fact that that project was done. What’s next? Next is seeing how that plays out internationally. And as mentioned, the international landscape is just so much more complicated and so much more nuanced that it just doesn’t translate. Certain elements of culture don’t translate to other countries and cultures.

What would be the danger of it, for instance, of taking that methodology and what would be the danger of taking that emphasis on elections and campaigns abroad? What did you see the danger as being?

Mostly, I just always was very encouraging of the company to think in the biggest possible perspective of what we were being asked to do. So of course, you know, I would get asked by people across my region: How is it that we can create the Obama effect here? But even more than that, I saw huge potential for Facebook to play a role in conversations that were happening amongst ministerial bodies, saying, you know, the world [is] connecting to each other. It means that, you know, our citizens are being influenced by [a] completely different suite of issues. What’s the right answer to sorting through that? And I think that’s the space that Facebook is starting to get into now. And that’s the space I was so much closer to at the time.

… I know you don’t know the exact reasons as to why there was a shift, but do you think that profitability had something to do with it? That you know, the work that you were doing wasn’t necessarily profitable work?

How dare you? (Laughs)

But it was profitable to society potentially, but not necessarily to Facebook’s bottom line. But the increasing emphasis of the company on elections and campaigns, especially in the States and abroad – do you think that the bottom line had something to do with that?

I mean, it’s a good question. You know, I can’t speak for the conversations going on with my colleagues in other regions. But certainly in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, political elections are not the same sort of big business that they are in America. And it was actually really hard to get resources from the sales team to help when, you know, when a sales question would come up that I didn’t know and I had to lob that over to the sales team. In those days it was actually hard to get the support because nobody was dedicated to that space. And you know, very few people actually were, you know, were willing to devote some of their time to helping me out. So I’m not sure how I would frame the profitability, profitability piece especially, in the app.

But certainly, the very clear-cut measurement piece is there with an election or campaign because it’s a thing. And you can wrap your head around that thing and it’s a project. And so much of a corporate environment, I think, works very well around a specific project versus an ongoing conversation. Ongoing conversations are so much more unwieldy but they do have impact over time. And I think it’s a harder sell for a business to sell in ideas than projects.

You were interested in kind of … Your role as you saw it at Facebook was to empower all different players and societies in your region – Africa, Middle East, Europe. Tell me about kind of a differing role that the company started to see itself as playing globally in global democracies and global societies.

Well, I think when I would see how it is that people were using Facebook in my region, whether it was working with a politician or a civil servant or a civil society leader, what I was working with them to better understand, and still do work with them to better understand, is how to actually use Facebook and use this new connected space to empower a different kind of dialogue; you know, a different kind of approach to teasing out the potential that we have to harness the most creative ideas on our planet, connect them, and create a better world. That’s really the big mission. And I think the danger of focusing too much on the, the elections piece, the political party piece, is in an election campaign, you know, it’s extremely important to democracy, but there are winners and there are losers. There are philosophies that, rather than work together, tear each other apart. And so although an election is an important part of a democratic country’s process, Facebook is bigger than that. Facebook is part of the world. It’s a global citizenry that impacts democracies and nondemocracies in, I think, with equal measure because some of the most powerful experiences I had would be working with civil society leaders trying to transform the increased knowledge in a country that actually didn’t have free and fair elections.

And I think what’s so exciting, or what was so exciting about representing a company like Facebook in that space at that time, is Facebook’s mission to connect the world aligned so well with a global mission of empowered citizenship and more open dialogue. And those two are such a natural fit in a way that an election and campaign is not necessarily.

So did Facebook move away from the mission of empowering individuals or civil society groups toward a mission much more focused on elections and campaigns?

Not at all, it’s just in my region I was really the only one doing it.

But what about globally?

Globally there wasn’t really a politics- the politics and government division existed in the Europe Middle East and Africa region. And then there was an individual in the LATAM region. And then Asia-Pac – I don’t think there was someone specifically dedicated to politics and government at the time that I left which was in 2016. So the idea of partnering on behalf of politics and government with these kinds of initiatives is something that I was in a really special place of being able to chart out what it is that I felt that that would look like. And that’s the kind of career moment that anybody would dream of having, but I felt a great responsibility to get it right. And I always felt getting it right aligned best when it aligned with people who were actually in the business of the greater good.

in terms of Facebook’s role in the countries that it’s operating in, and whether it’s good for societies or bad for societies, it would seem that a more holistic approach to empowering all aspects of a society would be a better approach or a healthier approach than simply focusing on elections or campaigns. Is that what you’re trying to say?

I always thought so.



I mean, but did Facebook move, in the time that you were there, toward a – more of an emphasis on elections and campaigns?

Well, I think for the Politics and Government Program specifically, you know, the Obama 2012 story was such a moment of euphoria for the entire space that, you know, it was intoxicating. And you know, there was this feeling of how do we take this exciting narrative that has just happened in America and apply that to the rest of the world?

And the danger of that is what, Elizabeth?

I think the danger is that it doesn’t translate necessarily. And I think that the nuanced political environment, you know, in a country like France, which is grappling with the Front National, or you know, in a country like Sweden, which saw an uptick in, you know, in right-wing political parties, there was more of an urgency in Europe to be quite careful with how it is that Facebook associated itself with specific political parties, given that it’s a volatile political environment maybe more akin to what America is now, you know, in our time post-Trump, post-Brexit. But even a number of years ago Europe was grappling with a rise of populism and a rise of extremes on both sides that we were extremely sensitive to. And I think it was important to keep that emphasis on working with political parties as streamlined as possible so that that didn’t become the dominant emphasis of the company’s narrative.

But that changed at a certain point at the company, where there was less of a sensitivity as to who the company would actually work with?

I think there was always a sensitivity. But I certainly – so I wouldn’t say that the company just completely didn’t understand. You know, they have now and did increasingly have policy people on the ground to think through how it is that this would go. But the emphasis on seeing the role of Facebook in, as part of a political elections process certainly had an uptick after the 2012 election. And that is something that was certainly evident within and probably outside of the company as well.

Facebook’s Reaction To Warnings

And you expressed your concerns about this internally, that new direction?

Yes, and I also expressed my real belief in bringing out more of the voices that I think typically corporate America doesn’t necessarily pay much attention to because it’s just not on their radar. And it’s those voices that sometimes have the deepest expression of what Facebook would be trying to achieve for, quote, “good.” And it’s those voices that I feel warrant the greatest priority because they’re the ones that can teach the rest of us how to actually create positive change through this space. And if you’re not pulling out those voices and you know, really investing time in helping the company to hear them, I think you’re missing a real trick.

What was the response internally to your concerns?

You know, it varied according to whoever it was that I was talking to.

Can you be more specific than that?

Probably not.

Was there ever a discussion internally at Facebook, at the high levels of Facebook, about a set of standards that the company might establish about who it does business with and who it doesn’t do business with?

Yeah. It’s a really good question. I mean, you have to go to the States for that question. In my region, it was a country by country approach. And you know, we were extremely thoughtful about that. So you know, I mentioned in the context of the U.K., in the context of Israel, we were very sensitive to the fact that some political parties in Israel would naturally not be represented, for example, by the staff at Facebook because the nature of a tech company means that, you know, Orthodox Jews are not going to be drawn to work at a company like Facebook, which is one of the reasons why we really prioritize[d] the time that I spent there as an outsider. Because of course, since I didn’t vote in that country and by definition was not affiliated with any political perspective, you know, all of the description around how it is that political parties could approach Facebook routed through me. And that was a very thoughtful decision by the company to ensure that they weren’t taking sides.

So I have to say, you know, in Europe, Middle East and Africa, every time we would go into a country we would have a conversation around what is the appropriate level of reaching out to to everyone. And we would offer a training, of course, to all of the political parties, all of the government ministries, and it was up to them to take us up on it. But because we weren’t embedded in the campaigns, that was quite straightforward, and the trainings were delivering information you could find online anyway. It just was easier if you had a direct point of contact at the company.

Did you find the idea of embedding in a campaign problematic?

Oh, absolutely, yes. So long as I was in charge of Politics and Government for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, I never would’ve embedded somebody in a campaign. That was just the policy that I set early on.

Why not? Why wouldn’t you do it?

It’s just too volatile. And I think the level of support that you get, you know, varies according to who’s responsible. And I just think it wasn’t the best use of a limited set of time and resources because it just doesn’t scale when you’re covering a region that big and with that many political parties. You know, the first hire that I made at Facebook was a data scientist with two masters degrees from Oxford. And what she found, actually, is that the longer the posts on Facebook, the better it would perform in the politics space. That was revolutionary because most social media so-called experts at that time were telling, you know, senior leaders [that] everything you do online, it has to be short; maybe it can be funny. You know, it was the wrong advice, actually, because when you really sink your teeth into an issue and share with people what your thought process is, people really responded to that. So from my perspective, if we’re going to have impact in the region, and I do believe hopefully we had, we had some, the bigger question was to really help leaders understand how to maximize this space. And delivering that narrative was far more important than doing a job that a company that specializes in political campaigns can very well do.

Facebook And Ukraine

In 2014, in the Ukraine there was a misinformation campaign.


Right. Was that on your radar screen?

Absolutely. Hugely worrisome to countries especially in Eastern Europe. That always came up and I did a lot of work in Eastern Europe and everyone was wondering how to know how to grapple with the spread of [dis]information. My advice always at the time, that I would say even still today, is just it’s really important that a leader or an organization gets on this platform and builds their audience in a very direct way first. Because once you have a campaign like that hitting you, it’s almost too late. And you know, I saw this play out a lot in the emergency response field. If you have a really strong presence online and people know where to go to get information the minute a disaster hits, you’ve already ushered people to where they need to go.

And you know, part of the problem is issues like this that would flare up. If the ministries and the politicians and the leaders that could do something about it were not there, that just aggravates the situation.

But [what was] Facebook’s actual corporate response to Ukraine to what was a Russian disinformation campaign using the platform? Right? I mean, what was the responsibility internally at Facebook to dealing with the fact that there was a Russian disinformation campaign on Facebook?

I don’t remember if there was. I would have to look back. It could have been that there was an official response developed by the policy team. Where I saw this play out in European circles was the question of, given the fact that there is a disinformation campaign, what do we do to build resilience to it? And that is the angle of the story that I was most focused on. One of the pieces that most ministries and politicians are so uncomfortable with is, you know, if you don’t know something, then you don’t say it, or you know, you don’t just talk to people about saying we actually know what’s going on. And that sort of lack in real talk on the internet only aggravates a disinformation campaign environment and so we would talk about these kinds of techniques quite regularly.

Facebook And Russian Disinformation

… But was it known to Facebook in 2014, with the disinformation campaign in the Ukraine, that there was a potential for Russian disinformation campaigns on Facebook?

Yes. And there were disinformation campaigns from a number of different countries on Facebook. You know, disinformation campaigns were a regular facet of Facebookery abroad.

And so we were very much close to that and part of that. But of course, it’s only recently that these issues have become part of the American public’s vocabular [vocabulary] because Americans just weren’t exposed to this until recently.

What was the direction from headquarters, for instance, about doing anything, if anything, about disinformation campaigns by state actors?

Yeah. You know, honestly, I do think that there were working groups and phone calls around that and I just wasn’t on them, so I just don’t know. Yeah I wish I did actually, I don’t know. I do remember a working group being set up around that time on those responses, but that just didn’t fall into my wheelhouse.

One of the things that has been interesting is that the company seems to have been taken by surprise that there was an extensive Russian disinformation campaign in the United States in the 2016 election.

Oh, right.

And here you had a prime example in 2014 in Ukraine of a disinformation campaign that’s, you know, highly effective.


And that Facebook was certainly aware of.


But I’m curious about what internally …

Yeah. That’s a great question. I don’t know. I mean, yeah, technically that should have led to a learning experience. I just don’t know.

Let’s get to the more present day stuff. What was it like … First of all, I’m going to ask you the question, why did you leave Facebook?

It was, it was time. I really felt as though there was a bigger story to be told around the responsibility that our leaders have to enter into this space. You know, what we’re seeing right now just isn’t good enough. It’s not [a] direct enough use of these new tools to actually change the way that leadership is performed. And I think we need to kind of train out of leaders so much of what we train into leaders. And so that was the piece that I was just most interested in working on and felt that I could probably do better without being the Facebook representative where it’s my job to work with leaders on this space, to push them a little bit farther.

What has it been like just sort of with Brexit and then the U.S. elections and sort of your former employer to go through this?

Yeah. Well, I used to think about this a lot when I was at Facebook, which is I don’t think that we as societies were prepared to see the democratic principles of our countries just so clearly in the mirror. I think as much as we all, and I would certainly believe that everyone having a voice is crucial. What social media does is it sheds light on voices that are quite easy to forget exist in your country because you don’t spend time with them and you don’t see them. And I don’t think that our societies were actually prepared to actually face quite so squarely, you know, some perspectives that if you’re an elected official living in a capital city you necessarily see. Maybe that’s unfair to politicians; they spend time in their constituencies.

But you know, I think in light of recent events, we see a lot in the comments section on social media of extremely uncomfortable and volatile and nasty perspectives. And so we’re a little bit more prepared to see what that real fabric of society is. And so you know, the fact that some perspectives, you know, racist perspectives play into an election campaign, well, you know, we see that online. And it’s the sort of thing that I think we just weren’t really prepared to see flare up in quite the way that it did.

But was there an aspect of it, though, that since you were so close to it and you saw how the platform was used in a large swath of the world, do you feel like some of the things that arose in 2015, 2016, were all there in plain sight? I mean, I’ve talked about Ukraine, I’ve talked about disinformation campaigns. So tell me.

Yeah. So I think one of the biggest themes – and I’ve been meaning to write this up as an article for ages but haven’t gotten around to it – is so much of the social media space comes from giving a voice to the amateur, you know, the nonprofessional. And in the beginning that was the most glorious thing because you didn’t have to be from somewhere with a certain type of training, a certain kind of background, education to really go big. You could be some kid in your bedroom that happens to have a talent and then you’ve got millions of viewers.

And so I think what happened is we were all so excited about the rise of the amateur that we missed the bigger societal implications, which is that when we laud amateurism in fun ways, like you know, singing and playing the ukulele, we also begin to reward the amateur in the realm of politics and leadership. And sometimes that’s a good thing because it brings in new voices to traditional establishments and sets them up for success.

And sometimes that’s a scary thing because we see a rejection of expert opinion because it doesn’t have that same flair of the amateur. And so I think that, you know, where we are politically today with so many polished, trained politicians not really knowing what their space is, so many polished, trained CEOs not really knowing how to handle this space, that has been a slow burn. And I think it’s been internet culture that has permeated our society at large and created a whole new way that we frame what it is that we value and believe in.

And like anything, I don’t think it’s black and white because part of me thinks wow, it’s so exciting to get in fresh ideas that never used to have a chance. You know, the number of times I walked up and down these halls of parliament in Europe and just wanted to give them a big shake, you know, and say time for some fresh ideas. Yes! But then at other times, that kind of culture can be quite erosive on really bringing in thoughtful, expert commentary which we need too and that’s hard.

Facebook’s Responsibility

… I mean, tell me about this idea that you have to make the company kind of start thinking through the effect it’s having on societies.

Oh, well, you know, arriving to the Europe, Middle East and Africa region when I did, it was just immediate. You know, there was such high demand, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, from people across the region to really partner with Facebook to understand what was going on. I remember being pulled into the House of Lords here in the U.K. by the select committee that was working on the Middle East to just say help us understand how people in the Middle East are using Facebook to connect with each other and enact societal change. We don’t get it. And you know, I did because I met with these people all the time, you know, and we had a real understanding at the company as to what was going on. We had a real pulse on the global world order and how it was changing quite dramatically and, you know, what was so exciting about being in that position. But also I felt a great responsibility about being in that position is figuring out what Facebook’s role was in partnering with the world and especially with people in positions of leadership or influence to understand what was happening.

You know, as the world connects to each other you have an uptick in, you know, scammers trying to promise a false stream in another country. You have an uptick in, you know, [dis]information campaigns – even the ones that don’t come from Russia but are just, you know, between students or that are between different groups of people that don’t get along. There’s all kinds of stuff going on and I think in the long run the good outweighs the bad.

But there’s also an incredible potential and always was for Facebook to take a leading position in saying: In addition to the ways in which we see opportunity we spot very clearly the challenges and we’re going to step up to the plate to figure out who needs to be involved in sorting those out. I don’t think any one organization can do it. It’s too big. Nobody’s ever done it before. This is the first time in the history of civilization that two billion people have been connected. What happens [when] the next one or two billion people come on board? But being part of that conversation was absolutely critical.

… And what about a responsibility? What is the responsibility of the company?

The responsibility to the company question is an interesting one because I think from very early on Facebook was careful not -to not position itself as being responsible for what was going on in the world. And yet when you would look in the eyes of a civil society leader or a politician whose world around them was changing because of Facebook you couldn’t help but feel an element of, even more than an element. You couldn’t help but feel a great responsibility for what was happening around the world.

And I don’t think it’s necessarily responsibility for how people were using the product because that’s for, you know, people to understand. But certainly a responsibility to bring together the most excellent voices that could help us chart how do we take connecting the world and usher it into something that actually, that actually charts new and fresh ideas and solutions.