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

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. 

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