As many tuned in to watch 33-year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress about the soul of his company, another 33-year-old in North Carolina turned inward for some soul-searching of his own about Facebook.
Josh Lawson, chief counsel for the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, released a string of tweets on Tuesday covering what could have been the beginning of targeted ads for the social media giant.
Lawson, a 33-year-old who describes himself as “either in the last year of Gen Xers or the first year of Millennials,” recounted a call he made 13 years ago while working on student government campaigns during his senior year at UCLA.
Though Lawson had seen a tweet posted by his wife Catherine Lawson go viral after she posted #MeAt14 in response to sexual assault allegations against Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, he did not expect so much interest in his Facebook tweets.
In 2005, Facebook had just come to UCLA with its offerings of an online network where students could post profile pages within a private network that was not online for all to see like the more popular MySpace.
"The big innovation of Facebook was it allowed people the security to use their real identities online,” Lawson said.
Many college students used MySpace at the time. It was a popular place for independent bands and pop culture stars to interact with fans, but it was busier looking and less graphically appealing than the cleaner, less cluttered pages of “The Facebook” that Zuckerberg started at Harvard.
“It was literally just a profile page,” Lawson said. “The big novelty of Facebook was it was a closed system.”
Lawson, who had narrowly lost a campaign to be UCLA student body president in 2004, thought the new social media platform might offer an opportunity to get more students involved with the campus elections in 2005.
So he opened his flip phone and called “The Facebook” with a proposition:
“I wanted to help some friends running for Student Counsel by displaying a series of sidebar ads targeting students who used certain keywords in their ‘About Me’ and ‘Groups’ section,” Lawson tweeted on Tuesday.
In those days, there was no Facebook feed or like buttons. It would be another year — September 2006 — before Facebook opened its site to everyone with a valid email address as long as they were at least 13 years old.
A man answered the phone. Lawson wonders whether he might have been in the once nondescript, now famous Palo Alto house to which Facebook founders moved in the summer of 2004 to build upon their idea that has changed global communication.
Was it Mark?
The responder introduced himself by his first name. “Spoilers,” Lawson said. “I don’t remember if it was Mark.”
But the person who picked up for “The Facebook” spoke with “earnest staccato” during the 15-minute phone conversation in which Lawson planted a seed for what might have been the first phone call about directly targeting Facebook users.
“This is interesting,” the Facebook worker said. “I’ve never done it before and I think we can do it.”
Lawson said the ads ran on Facebook pages that had not yet incorporated photos or videos. His candidates won. Then, two years later, Facebook launched its official ads service.
Lawson, who holds degrees from UCLA, George Washington University, UNC-Chapel Hill law school and Duke University’s law school, went on to work in the George W. Bush White House in 2006. He was an editor there for 16 months while also going to school at night to get a master’s degree in political management from the nearby George Washington University.
As a graduate student, Lawson had begun questioning the practice of targeted media and media targeting. With that idea in mind, he wrote a paper titled "Irresistible: Political Leadership in a Segmented America."
"Further segmentation represents a unique risk, in that information isolation leaves voters vulnerable to narrowcasted deception through inconsistent messaging," Lawson wrote in 2008 for his final project. "If allowed to proceed, these vulnerabilities represent a threat to democratic development and political leadership in this nation. These potentially damaging effects would be mitigated by both candidates and citizens embracing a self-restraining ethic."
As Lawson pursued a law degree from Carolina and a master's in law from Duke, Facebook continued to grow. Its mission and technologies evolved quickly.
On Tuesday, Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill wearing a navy blue suit and a bright blue tie.
It was the first day in a two-day hearing called to get answers about the company’s ability to protect its users in the light of recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the 2016 Trump campaign, harvested data of an estimated 87 million Facebook users to psychologically profile voters.
"In the past sixteen months, I’ve thought back on that time two kids got excited about motivating people to participate — one working out of Facebook’s first offices (think they were out of the rented house in Palo Alto), and one sitting in the sun six hours down the coast," Lawson wrote on Twitter.
'Disruption shook a world that needed shaking'
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Lawson said he doubted that phone call he placed 13 years ago truly was the seed that led to the growth of targeted ads making the political landscape what it is today.
"If I was the first I regret that," Lawson said.
His intention as a college senior trying to help his friends get elected was this:
"It truly was a hopeful thing. It was a way to encourage participation by people we thought might not participate."
With the retrospect of more than a decade, and the coming of age of a social media platform and the 30-somethings who brought its use into the mainstream, Lawson said he only saw the opportunities the new technology provided without weighing the lurking evils in the same world.
"Facebook is like electricity," Lawson said. "Some places it's powering a village. In another place, it's burning down a house."
By Wednesday morning, Lawson had heard from one of the candidates he helped at UCLA who had found an old e-mail from the campaign days. In that, someone named Ezra had responded that “banner ads can be targeted along any number of parameters (basically anything in user profiles)."
Lawson said that gave him some relief that Facebook already had been exploring the idea of targeting ads, that perhaps his phone conversation was the first time the employee had considered targeting political ads.
Lawson's use of Facebook has evolved, too. He rarely checks it these days, he said, other than to check in on his grandmother, one of the company's more than 1.8 billion monthly active users.
"It would surprise no one if two 21 year olds excited about an idea failed to weigh fully the effects of cascading ideological segmentation over time," Lawson said. "Disruption shook a world that needed shaking. But our American present represents an inflection-point for a generation of innovative leaders whose vision and norms must now square with the harsh reality of savvy adversaries who mean democracy harm. I believe that innovators will choose a strong way forward, that better laws can help, and that our social fabric will be better for their efforts."
With that, Lawson signed off with words of support and advice for Zuckerberg.
"Good luck on the Hill today," Lawson said. "Be honest."