How much does Mark Zuckerberg care about protecting Facebook users from manipulation by foreign government agents posing as Americans? Thanks to the events of the past two days, we now know the answer: Precisely enough to discuss the subject with Wall Street analysts, but not enough to talk about it with members of Congress.
As Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch was testifying before three congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday, fielding questions from a succession of irate and mostly tech-illiterate legislators, his boss was preparing to break it to investors that curbing Russian information operations and other forms of abuse on his platform will be expensive.
Having been accused of initially dismissing the significance of Russian activity, then slow-walking the investigation into it and repeatedly understating its effects, Zuckerberg used the opening minutes of Facebook's third-quarter earnings call to signal a new sense of purpose.
"I'm dead serious," Zuckerberg said. "I've directed our team to invest so much in security on top of the other investments we're making it will significantly impact our profitability going forward." That investment will include hiring at least 10,000 new employees to focus on security and enforcement. CFO David Wehner later clarified that many of those new jobs won't be full time but rather contract positions at partner companies.
"Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits," Zuckerberg said.
Helping that pill go down easier was the $4.7 billion in profit Facebook reported for the quarter, an astonishing margin on the company's $10.3 billion in revenue. Indeed, by all indications, the main impact of the Russia disclosures on Facebook's business has been demonstrating for advertisers how effective the platform's ad-targeting tools can be and how much organic resharing and engagement is lavished on viral content.
There was a lot of that kind of cognitive dissonance on the earnings call. Having said his piece about "false news or hate speech or bullying or any of the bad content we're talking about," Zuckerberg went on to talk about Facebook's other product priorities. He mentioned the uptake of live video, which receives substantially more engagement in News Feed than the on-demand kind, and Oculus virtual reality, which, he said, will help people feel more connected than ever. Critics say a focus on engagement as the paramount metric and on connecting people as an end in itself are what made Facebook such a powerful medium for disinformation.
And then Zuckerberg handed the call off to COO Sheryl Sandberg, who told analysts that Facebook's ad-targeting tools are getting more efficient all the time.
Yes, we know.