Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity reporter at the New York Times and the author of a new book about Facebook. (Photo/Beowulf Sheehan)
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity reporter at the New York Times and the author of a new book about Facebook. (Photo/Beowulf Sheehan)

Oakland author of Facebook exposé cut her teeth in the Mideast

Journalist Sheera Frenkel was ready for a change of pace after a decade living in and reporting from the Middle East. Between 2005 and 2015, she covered the end of the second intifada in Israel and Gaza, along with the Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring countries. Although she possessed Hebrew and Arabic language skills and a deep knowledge of the region, making her an asset to any news organization, her editor at Buzzfeed was amenable to her returning to the United States. He even had another beat in mind for her.

“You’ve covered real-life warfare for most of your career, so covering digital warfare would be natural for you,” Frenkel recalled him telling her. “And to be honest,” she said, “it was.”

For the past several years, Frenkel has covered cybersecurity for Buzzfeed and, beginning in 2017, for the New York Times. She has written about WikiLeaks and Russian hackers, conspiracy theories and online extremism, and the internal drama at technology giants such as Google and Twitter.

The Oakland-based journalist is also the author of a new, bestselling book about Facebook, which she will speak about during an online talk hosted by the Commonwealth Club on Aug. 4 at 6 p.m.

“An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination” is a deeply researched exposé of the company’s top leaders, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, both of whom are Jewish. The striking cover of the book features close-up shots of their unsmiling faces, along with quotes from both spanning from 2006 to 2020 and repeating some variation of the mea culpa “We need to do better.”

Based on interviews with more than 400 former and current Facebook employees, the book—which Frenkel wrote with her Times colleague Cecilia Kang—reveals how Zuckerberg and Sandberg have prioritized growth and profits over the best interests of the platform’s users.

The authors focus on the years when Donald Trump was president, “an important period that shed light on so many things that were problematic at the company,” Frenkel said in an interview with J. “So much of what Trump did, the company hadn’t foreseen anyone doing that, and that’s a theme that repeats itself again and again in the book. They often don’t imagine that people will use the platform in the way that they do.”

Frenkel, 38, grew up in Los Angeles and comes from a family of Mizrahi and Persian Jews; her father’s family hails from Yemen and her mother’s from Iran. She said she enjoys cooking some of her grandmother’s Persian recipes, including the crunchy rice dish tahdig. “I made it for Friday night dinner recently, and I don’t know how many years I’ve been making it, but I feel like I’ve finally mastered it,” she said.

She told J. she knew she wanted to be a journalist when she was a sophomore in high school. Her grandfather encouraged her to pursue her passion for writing, so she started contributing to a local paper in Los Angeles. “It was kind of love at first sight,” she said, “and that’s all that I saw myself doing.”

During her time in the Middle East, she reported for NPR and the Times of London, among others, and made Jerusalem her home base. She lived in the Mahane Yehuda neighborhood and built a community among the shopkeepers in the nearby shuk. She also adopted two stray cats, one of which, Dexi, still lives with her.

I’ve had experience dealing in closed systems that are predominantly male, given that I was reporting in very patriarchal societies in Egypt and Jordan.

Working as a female journalist in the Middle East prepared her for the sexism she would face covering the still male-dominated tech industry, she said. “I’ve had experience dealing in closed systems that are predominantly male, given that I was reporting in very patriarchal societies in Egypt and Jordan,” she said.

Although she no longer focuses on the region, Frenkel still writes about Israel every now and then for the Times. Most recently, she reported on misinformation that circulated on social media about the May conflict between Israel and Hamas, and about Israeli extremists who organized mob attacks against Palestinian citizens of Israel on WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook.

Frenkel met her British husband while living abroad, and the couple has two daughters, ages 4 and 2. They belong to a synagogue, though she declined to say which one, explaining that she has been harassed online for reporting about white supremacist groups and is therefore cautious about how much personal information she reveals publicly.

She worked on “An Ugly Truth” late at night after putting her children to sleep, and during a two-month leave from the Times. She said she and Kang have been surprised by the reception of the book, which hit the New York Times bestseller list last month.

“We were super nervous that people were going to feel like they already knew everything about Facebook, or that the story is too depressing,” Frenkel said. “The reviews have all been really great. That’s incredibly rewarding.”

(Facebook dismissed “An Ugly Truth” as just one of 367 books that have been penned about the company, a figure that Facebook’s own employees have said is inflated, according to Frenkel.)

In an email to J., Kang said about her co-author: “Sheera is the perfect reporting partner. She is an indefatigable reporter, with an intrinsic drive to root out the truth and hold power to account. This probably comes from her years of reporting in the Middle East, where courage and skepticism is critical for good reporting. But it also comes from who she is as an individual: a caring, purpose-driven and empathic woman who wants to help tilt the world — in any way she can — toward the positive.”

Asked about her own use of Facebook, Frenkel said she relies on it to connect with sources and to stay in contact with friends around the world, including in Israel.

“I enjoy social media, but I’ve come to think of it a little bit like sugar,” she said. “A lot of sugar isn’t good for us, but a little bit is OK. You have to know how to moderate.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.