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How reporting on the Middle East prepared one journalist to cover Facebook

Covering authoritarian regimes in the Middle East helped prepare Frenkel for reporting on the social media behemoth, she told JI.

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Sheera Frenkel

For Sheera Frenkel, a New York Times reporter and the co-author of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination covering the social media giant was a result of “happenstance.” 

As a freelance foreign correspondent, Frenkel published her first big stories from Israel, although she actually got her start in South America. Frenkel, who speaks Hebrew and Arabic, moved to the Middle East in search of stories to report just before Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

“I left stuff with a friend in Argentina because I was so sure that I was just going to be gone for six months,” she recalled. “I have not been back to Argentina since then, and who knows what happened to my suitcases.”

She joined The New York Times in 2017, assigned to the cybersecurity beat. “I was very, very pregnant, and pretty much immediately after joining, I went on maternity leave,” Frenkel told Jewish Insider in a recent phone interview. The end of her maternity leave coincided with the departure of the paper’s Facebook beat reporter, who left to write his own book on the company. 

“They needed somebody that could fill in for a couple months while he was off writing his book,” Frenkel recalled. 

Four years later, Frenkel has become a must-follow reporter on the Facebook beat — an auspicious place to be, as news about the company’s pursuit of profit at all costs continues to emerge. Last week, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower,  testified to Congress about how Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, suppressed internal research demonstrating the harms of the company’s products, especially Instagram. Frenkel felt vindicated.

“It was, I would say, incredibly satisfying to see the receipts, in a way, for everything we had been told for years,” she said.  

In conversation with JI, Frenkel talked about what covering authoritarian governments taught her about the social media giant, how to use Facebook responsibly and why she separates her Jewish identity from her reporting. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Jewish Insider: To start with recent news, is there anything in the documents from or the congressional testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that particularly surprised you?

Sheera Frenkel: I can’t say that I was surprised. Reporting the book, we had heard so much about research conducted by Facebook and internal documents that pointed to potential harm done by the company on teenagers, on decisions about misinformation and hate speech that could have been different had the company been willing to sacrifice some of its engagement in exchange for maybe decreasing things like hate speech, conspiracies and misinformation. We’ve been essentially hearing about this cache of documents and this body of research for so long. But it was, I would say, incredibly satisfying to see the receipts, in a way, for everything we had been told for years. 

JI: Do you think it’s still possible to be surprised at anything that Facebook does?

Frenkel: Even as someone who’s reported on this as much as I have, I will say that it is still surprising just to see it in black and white. We see internal documents, which show the company is given five options that would potentially decrease misinformation. The first option would be the least effective, but also hurts them the least in terms of engagement. And the fifth option would be the most effective, but also the most hurtful in terms of engagement. It’s still sometimes surprising to see them justify the fact that they don’t want to hurt their engagement, that they have clear options on the table that could really decrease the amount of misinformation and hate speech, but they don’t opt for them because they’re bad for business. When you put it in black and white like that, it is still surprising, despite my knowing it for years.

JI: You focus mainly on Facebook, but I’m curious about your thoughts on whether there are similar problems at other tech companies, like Twitter or Google. Is Facebook worse, or does it just get the most attention at the moment?

Frenkel: It’s a really important question. I think that we pay attention to Facebook, just because it’s honestly the biggest. But I’ve written on all the tech companies, especially when it comes to hate speech and misinformation. I’ve written about YouTube and Twitter and TikTok. 

JI: How did you wind up focusing on Facebook in particular?

Frenkel: I can’t say that I ever set out to be a Facebook reporter. I joined The New York Times as a cybersecurity correspondent in 2017. I was very, very pregnant, and pretty much immediately after joining, I went on maternity leave. And then right when I came back, I was told that the Facebook reporter was on book leave, and they needed somebody that could fill in for a couple months while he was off writing his book. It seemed like an interesting assignment. I honestly can’t say I knew very much about Facebook. I didn’t have very many sources in Facebook in 2017 when I was asked to do this. It was just kind of happenstance, but I became deeply interested in it as soon as I started reporting on it. I thought it was a fascinating company, and this was a really interesting time in that people were so upset over what had happened in the 2016 election within the company that it was actually a good time to build up new sources. 

JI: Were the sources that you were developing mainly Facebook employees who were frustrated with the way that Facebook handled things in 2016?

Frenkel: I think that the best sources I developed were people who saw problems in what Facebook was doing, but who actually were quite loyal to the company and who really were looking to improve it or make it better. Their motivation originally, I would say, was almost entirely, ‘Well, I want to talk to a reporter about this, because I think we can be doing better.’

JI: You joined The Times at first to focus on cybersecurity. What is the overlap between cybersecurity and the work you do now on misinformation and democracy?

Frenkel: I had a conversation with my editor at the time when I started writing about misinformation. It seemed fairly obvious to both of us that [misinformation and cybersecurity] were really interconnected, and that part of cybersecurity and part of cyber warfare is disinformation. It’s countries waging information warfare. It’s really an extension. And so while we maybe think of cybersecurity as just hacks — people leveraging computers to attack one another — I do think modern-day warfare extends beyond that. What happened in 2018 is a perfect example of that, where Russian agents didn’t just infiltrate the computers of the DNC. They then waged information warfare with the electoral system. They took those emails from the Clinton campaign and basically tried to harm her campaign. The two worlds of disinformation and cybersecurity both came together in that one moment. 

JI: For people who are not going to get off of Facebook, is there a way to approach the site more responsibly?

Frenkel: It’s so important, because I don’t actually expect people to get off Facebook. I use Facebook. I have friends and family that live all over the world, and the only way I have to reach them is through Facebook. I think it’s unrealistic when people talk about getting off Facebook. I think a better approach is, how do you use Facebook responsibly? 

When you see something which gets you riled up or angry, instead of just sharing it right away, you take a moment to say, ‘Let me check the source of this information. This might not be accurate. This sounds too crazy — I’m going to take a moment before I share it.’ When I talk to older family members and friends, I often say that. I’ve seen friends of mine share things on Facebook, especially during the pandemic, which I know aren’t true because they’re even fact-checked. And I call those people up, old-fashioned, saying, ‘Hey, you just shared something on Facebook. You’re saying there’s going to be a mask mandate in this place and masks are required, and [people] not wearing masks will be put in jail. I can tell you that that’s not the law in the city. This is the law.’ Misinformation intentionally gets people angry or upset. I just think getting people to calm down a minute and realize that Facebook’s algorithms are designed to put emotive content at the top of your newsfeed, so whatever is likely to make you angry or sad or happy is going to be the first thing you see on Facebook. Knowing that, and not letting yourself get riled up, is really important. 

JI: You write sometimes about Israel and the Middle East in the context of your work on social networks. How do the problems of misinformation and online propaganda play out in other countries, particularly in the Middle East? Does your approach to covering the issues in those countries differ from the way you cover them in the United States? 

Frenkel: I wouldn’t say my approach is any different. There are people who are looking to promote hate speech or who are looking to promote conspiracies and misinformation or violence. That’s something I’m always looking at. And then I think just because I have a background in the Middle East — I lived there for a long time, I reported from many countries there — that kind of stuff often comes on my radar from those countries faster than it would from other parts of the world. I also think it’s a part of the world where people are very experimental in how they use social media. I think about how the Taliban responded on social media when they swept [into] control of Afghanistan. I’m thinking years back when ISIS used social media in an innovative way to try and recruit people to join their cause and to try and promote an especially cruel type of terrorism. These are interesting uses of social media that I don’t think anyone at the [social media] companies predicted.

JI: Are there any particular skills that you developed when working as a foreign correspondent that you bring with you into this reporting?

Frenkel: I like to say that I did a lot of reporting on authoritarian regimes when I was a correspondent in the Middle East, so I got used to working outside of the system. The government wasn’t going to be giving me accurate information, so I had to work on the periphery to find people within who were willing to become sources, give me accurate information and try to help me understand the systems or lack of systems that were in place. I think it trains you to be skeptical of many things, because you don’t know exactly who’s going to be a good source and give you accurate information and who’s not. In a country like Egypt, it’s not like you have this repository of really basic public information. I can’t look up basic things like how many people are using the internet in the city, or what is the water supply like. It’s just not updated public information. You have to approach everything with a note of caution and skepticism — like, OK, one person has told me that in their city, this thing happened, but I need to independently find three or four other people that can tell me the same thing before I can proceed with it. Because I know I probably can’t trust the official account of this thing.

JI: When you were just getting started as a reporter, why did you decide to begin your career in Israel?

Frenkel: I didn’t start my career there, actually. When I graduated from college, the first place I moved was South America. I was there for a bit before I had an editor that said, ‘We just have a limited amount of stories we’re taking from South America right now. Israel is about to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.’ This was back in 2005, with the disengagement; Ariel Sharon was the prime minister and Israel was about to withdraw from its settlements in the Gaza Strip and several settlements in the West Bank. My editor back then just said, ‘Look, this is a huge news event. And if you go there, we can take a lot more stories from you.’ I think it was her way of helping me as a young reporter. She gave me very good advice that if I went there, it was going to be a big news event, and they were going to be able to commission a lot more work from me.

JI: Did you have any concerns when you were going there that as a Jewish reporter, you would be siloed into the Israel beat for the rest of your career?

Frenkel: I left stuff with a friend in Argentina because I was so sure that I was just going to be gone for six months. I was only 22 at the time, maybe 23. I was really young. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just go there for six months, sell a bunch of articles, make a name for myself, and come right back.’ I am sad to say that I have not been back to Argentina since then. And who knows what happened to my suitcases. I have felt very strongly that my Jewish identity is personal and to be kept outside of my reporting. My editors knew that I could speak Hebrew, and that I could speak Arabic. Back in those days when I was really just freelancing and trying to sell my articles to as many places as I could, I was really focused on, ‘Hey, I speak the local languages and I can do reporting without a fixer, without a translator.’ From the very, very beginning that was a great entry-point. I eventually ended up getting a press card from the Jerusalem Post, I got a job at the Jerusalem Post and I worked for them for a bit. That gave me great access to sources, and I did Knesset reporting for them. I got to meet a lot of members of parliament and meet the prime minister. I was able to really quickly source up because I had local language skills. It was less about whether I was Jewish and more about, well, I could speak Hebrew and Arabic, so I could speak to people by myself and create sources by myself.

JI: You write about the internet as a woman and as a Jewish person, two identities that often get a lot of hate on the web. Have you had to deal with that, and has it affected the way that you’ve approached or covered certain stories? 

Frenkel: You were trying to be delicate about it, but I think you know. Being a Jewish person online, being a woman online: these are not identities that are easy. On the internet, there is a lot of incredibly vitriolic speech directed at any minority group. It’s sad that for some reason, women are still very much treated as a minority online. Early in my career, because I was covering the Middle East — and people are very deeply emotive about their feelings about the Middle East — I had to develop a tough skin online, because the attacks were so vicious. I had to just learn, like, ‘I’m creating a really big wall around myself, and I’m not engaging, and there’s nothing to be gained from feeding the trolls online.’ That’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re really young, especially as a woman. If people are attacking your appearance or saying incredibly sexist things, you just learn to say, ‘They’re full of hate. They are full of incorrect assumptions. There’s no point in going there, in engaging.’ Everybody bends at some point; I’ve found someone who’s incredibly rude or condescending or inaccurate, and then immediately regretted it because I’ve just gotten bogged down into a fight with them that I don’t really want to be in. People who have good faith — people who actually want to engage with me on the content of my stories and have a real dialogue — it’s very rarely over Twitter, with a bunch of emojis and starting with expletives. Those people are not looking to actually understand my work or have a real conversation about it.