Website of the Year
Business

Exclusive: Can this man make Kiwis love Facebook again?

Damien Venuto

Business Reporter, NZ Herald

There's an eerie feel to the carnival setting at Sydney's Luna Park. The usual laughter of kids running from dodgems to candy stalls has been replaced by the stylish steps of advertising execs sauntering from event to event. There's something post-apocalyptic about it – as if we've been transported into a future where children are no longer necessary because humanity has found the cure for ageing.

A PR minder walks me past the deserted rides to the far side of the venue, where we enter a vast room filled with pinball machines and an assortment of carny games. We're joined by Facebook's global chief marketing officer Antonio Lucio, who has a youthfully enthusiastic reaction, marvelling at the weirdness of what must be one of the more unconventional interview settings in his varied career.

The fun fair is the venue for Australia's annual Advertising Week conference, and before we sit down, Lucio stands in front of a funny mirror that offers a stretched-out, grotesque version of the well-groomed man he actually is. It seems an apt metaphor for the challenge facing Lucio, who has been picked to bend Facebook's image back into a shape that doesn't terrify people quite as much.

Sydney's Luna Park served as the unconventional venue for the Ad Week event this year. Photo / Getty Images
Sydney's Luna Park served as the unconventional venue for the Ad Week event this year. Photo / Getty Images

Facebook chief operations officer Sheryl Sandberg hand picked Lucio for the business about 11 months ago following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. During a career spanning roles at Hewlett-Packard, Visa, Pepsico, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble, Lucio has garnered a reputation as a fixer – a steady hand you can rely on when things go sour.

One story he tells is of joining Pepsico in Latin America and almost immediately having to fire 54 per cent of the workforce because of a series of business investments that had gone south. The company was in disarray, receiving hate not only from workers, but from the broader community over the impact of the job losses.

"That was probably one of my darkest days," he says.

There's no pithy press statement that will change minds after a situation like that, and Lucio says it took two and a half years of concerted work to bring shareholders, investors, workers and consumers back on side.

"Change takes time," he says, offering the best estimate of what lies ahead for him.

End of apologies

Time has also been kind to Facebook since the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted and gave the world its first social data villain.

"Although the scores on trust had declined post-Cambridge Analytica, we are already halfway better than what we were at the time," Lucio says.

That might be true on a global, statistical level, but Facebook's role in the Christchurch massacre still feels too raw for many of the 2.6 million New Zealanders who use Facebook daily. The anger remains, as does the fear that something similar could happen again.

Asked why Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook didn't apologise after the Christchurch shooting as they did to the US Sentate after Cambridge Analytica, the fast-talking Lucio pauses for a moment before offering a measured response.

"I believe that you only regain trust through actions and not through words," he says.

"To this day, I still feel awful about what happened. I was in Palo Alto in the office late that night, talking to our teams about all the things we have to do much better to make sure this thing doesn't happen again. And out of that, we've had some tangible actions."

To many New Zealanders, those actions seemed to come too slowly from a company that built its reputation on innovating faster than anyone else. One of the most oft-cited examples of inaction was the company's decision not to suspend live streaming in the aftermath of the shooting.

So why did Facebook decide to leave the live streams running despite the calls for action?

"Mark and the company is about creating solutions that will stick as opposed to a Band-Aid that might or might not work," is Lucio's response.

Antonio Lucio didn't veer away from commenting on the Christchurch massacre. Photo / Supplied
Antonio Lucio didn't veer away from commenting on the Christchurch massacre. Photo / Supplied

Facebook's eventual solution was to institute a one-strike policy for Facebook Live, which means users will now be banned from using the interface if they're caught doing anything that contravenes Facebook's rules.

The removal of white nationalists, separatists and supremacists, and the banning of inflammatory figures notorious for stoking racial division, are other measures Facebook took as a result of the attack.

Former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, now vice-president of global affairs for Facebook, stood with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron in signing the nine-point Christchurch Call to tackle violent content on social media.

The signatories' intentions are clearly in the right place, but it has now been more than two months since the document was signed and the Herald still receives tip-offs that versions of the Christchurch attack video are circulating on Facebook. And this is only one isolated example, that gets attention because of its high profile. It's anyone's guess how many other deplorable films and ideas are bouncing around among the 2.7 billion users on Facebook's suite of services.

Asked whether he thinks New Zealanders will ever learn to love Facebook as much as they did a few years back, Lucio says he isn't even thinking about that at this stage.

"We won't go from mistrust to love. We want to move from mistrust to understanding. It's a case of getting people to say 'I may agree or disagree with Facebook, but I understand why they're making the call they're making'."

How to fix Facebook?

Admittedly, those terrible examples are the minority among the mass of content published on Facebook every day, but they're increasingly being used to define what the company represents.

Lucio doesn't shy away from this, conceding that Facebook needs to fix its issues with hateful content, interference in elections, fake news and data management if it has any hope of changing the views of users around the world.

Facebook says it is getting better at removing the worst terrorist content, with its algorithms and moderators effectively wiping out 99 per cent of the propaganda coming from the likes of Isis and Al-Qaida. But this is only one puzzle – and perhaps the easiest of them all – in the elaborate digital quest Facebook is in. As it moves on to other challenges, the degree of difficulty quickly ramps up.

Take, for example, the fact that Facebook currently puts its success rate in removing hate speech at about 65 per cent. Lucio admits that isn't good enough, but explains that identifying hate speech or fake news isn't as simple as programming an algorithm to delete anything that meets a set of requirements.

"I've been with the people who are making the nuanced decisions about what is news and what is not news," he says.

"When it comes to opinion, I can guarantee that four of us may know the platform, we may know about the standards, but once we get a post, we'll all disagree. It's not black and white."

Facebook has already faced backlash over decisions to ban certain accounts, or posts from US President Donald Trump, so imagine the complexity of trying to develop a uniform set of rules that apply across the world, while remaining sensitive to the nuances in governance across borders.

"We're not going to be able to do this on our own," Lucio says.

"No company should be defining election interference and all these kinds of things. We need to bring in governments, academics and opinion leaders to help us sort these things out. We will take our responsibility in that, but it's the future of democracy that's at stake here."

Moving on from moving fast and breaking things

Sometimes, Lucio sounds like a fastidious archivist, scouring through reams of statements Zuckerberg made earlier in his career and filing them away. After all, the Facebook boss has long had his earlier statements used as evidence against him, in scathing editorials questioning whether he even cares about the impact of what he unleashed on the world. And Lucio admits many of those comments have not aged well, even pointing the Weekend Herald to a particularly awkward example.

"Mark had said at some point in his 20s that the younger generation does not believe in privacy, but now he's 35 and we're privacy first. He's coming of age," the marketing boss says.

Facebook has shifted its strategy when it comes to privacy. Photo / Getty Images
Facebook has shifted its strategy when it comes to privacy. Photo / Getty Images

No quote has been a source of more consternation and criticism for Zuckerberg than Facebook's old motto: "Move fast and break things". Even though the company changed that half a decade ago to the more the palatable "Move fast", Facebook's recent stumbles from calamity to calamity seemed to be a direct result of a culture that chased innovation regardless of cost.

Lucio says those days at the company are over, somewhat surprisingly pointing to Facebook's plans to launch a cryptocurrency called Libra. He sees my scepticism, quickly adding that I wouldn't be the first journalist to question why the hell Facebook is making such a bold move at what is arguably the toughest crossroads in its history. But there's apparently logic to this madness.

"Three years ago, we would have launched it," he says.

"It would be out there, people would be complaining, we would have broken a couple of things here and there.

"But this is Mark saying: 'No, we're going to write a white paper, we're going to publish that white paper, we're going to create this association and then we're going to face the legislators in Europe and in Washington and we're going to allow them to tell us everything that could wrong with this'.

"And by the way, if there's no agreement that we should do this, Facebook will not go in. I don't know how to tell you how much of a fundamental shift that is for the company."

Here come the regulators

Facebook's awkward embrace of regulation isn't restricted to its cryptocurrency ambitions. As the chorus of countries calling for regulation of other parts of its business grows, Facebook has expressed a willingness to work with governments to develop suitable frameworks. Whether this move is sincere will probably only become clearer as the rules start taking shape.

Lucio says Facebook wants clear rules, so it has a better sense of the boundaries within which it can operate.

"We're going to work closer with governments, so when something happens, we're going to know specifically what to do and we're going to be in agreement that that's the right thing to do," he says.

Leaning on his experience at Visa, he uses the analogy of the credit card industry, which today has a reputation of being secure and safe, despite being subject to fraud.

"Credit cards are still hacked all the time, but the infrastructure has been put in place, so that people understand now that when they get hacked, they won't have liability and they'll be sent a new card."

In a particularly impressive PR sidestep, Lucio even manages to see a positive in the US$5 billion ($7b) settlement Facebook recently made with the Federal Trade Commission over its use of data.

"If we had gone the legal route, we would have paid a fraction just because of precedent," he says.

"But Mark and the company decided it was an inflection and we're going to take advantage of this. The government is going to tell us how we should do this, so that we have the roadmap and the plan to make the fundamental changes."

A more cynical way of looking at this is that it allows companies like Facebook to share the blame when things don't go according to plan. As long as the company operates within the confines of clearly defined rules written by the governments of the countries in which it operates, it has a defence.

It's the same defence we see when any of the big tech companies are challenged for not paying enough tax: that they're just abiding by the laws of the country involved. Which may be fair enough - ensuring that citizens are safe is partly the job of legislators, and they have dropped the ball when it comes to the sheer pace of digital advancement. In much the same way that Facebook is looking to slow down and rethink the way it operates, perhaps lawmakers need to move a bit faster and find a better way to keep laws relevant in a changing online world.

Will Christchurch happen again?

A question many have asked since Christchurch is whether we can avoid this ever happening again, on a platform as big and unwieldy as Facebook.

"That's a very challenging question," admits Lucio, framing it in even bigger terms by asking whether we can ever eradicate crime.

"No, you are not going to be able to eradicate it, because there will always be creative minds who will try to figure things out.

"This is going to be a forever battle."

He says it's not Facebook's size that's the problem, but rather the motivations of the people using the platform.

"There are significant incentives for people to use the platform for good and there are significant incentives to use it for bad. There's a lot of impact and lot of money that can be made on it."

Facebook is really just a mirror of who we are, and that plays out every day. While environmentalists encourage people to remove three pieces of plastic every time they visit the beach, Donald Trump's campaign is selling hundreds of thousands of plastic straws on the premise that "liberal paper straws don't work." And while charitable organisations are fighting bullying, an Ipsos report late last year found New Zealand has the third highest rate of cyber bullying in the world.

This duality of Facebook is what makes it such an uncomfortable presence in our daily lives. For all the good it may do, the bad moments really stand out because of how effectively they're amplified across the world.

In many ways, it's reminiscent of Jordan Peele's 2019 psychological movie thriller Us, which also played out in a carnival setting and told the story of humanity's darker side lurking under the surface. That's not going to change. The only thing that can change is how we react when that darker side steps out of the carnival into our otherwise peaceful digital world.

Luna Park shows off its creepy side. Photo / Getty Images
Luna Park shows off its creepy side. Photo / Getty Images

• Damien Venuto travelled to Sydney courtesy of Facebook.