THE STREETS OF Davos, Switzerland, were iced over on the night of January 25, 2018, which added a slight element of danger to the prospect of trekking to the Hotel Seehof for George Soros’ annual banquet. The aged financier has a tradition of hosting a dinner at the World Economic Forum, where he regales tycoons, ministers, and journalists with his thoughts about the state of the world. That night he began by warning in his quiet, shaking Hungarian accent about nuclear war and climate change. Then he shifted to his next idea of a global menace: Google and Facebook. “Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” he said. “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position … Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered.”
ACROSS TOWN, A group of senior Facebook executives, including COO Sheryl Sandberg and vice president of global communications Elliot Schrage, had set up a temporary headquarters near the base of the mountain where Thomas Mann put his fictional sanatorium. The world’s biggest companies often establish receiving rooms at the world’s biggest elite confab, but this year Facebook’s pavilion wasn’t the usual scene of airy bonhomie. It was more like a bunker—one that saw a succession of tense meetings with the same tycoons, ministers, and journalists who had nodded along to Soros’ broadside.
Over the previous year Facebook’s stock had gone up as usual, but its reputation was rapidly sinking toward junk bond status. The world had learned how Russian intelligence operatives used the platform to manipulate US voters. Genocidal monks in Myanmar and a despot in the Philippines had taken a liking to the platform. Mid-level employees at the company were getting both crankier and more empowered, and critics everywhere were arguing that Facebook’s tools fostered tribalism and outrage. That argument gained credence with every utterance of Donald Trump, who had arrived in Davos that morning, the outrageous tribalist skunk at the globalists’ garden party.