A Silicon Valley investor for over three decades, Roger McNamee mentored Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and took great pride and joy in the company's success... until recently.
"Now, I'm disappointed. I am embarrassed. I'm ashamed," said McNamee. "Just as they get credit for every success, they need to be held accountable for failures. Recently, Facebook has done some things that are truly horrible, and I can longer excuse its behavior."
Just prior to this week's Sun Valley Wellness Festival & Conference, where he'll talk about his New York Times bestseller, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, McNamee spoke with Boise Weekly about what he calls a "reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the head of one of the world's most powerful companies to face up to the damage he's doing."
Can I assume that a team of lawyers had a good look at your book before it hit bookshelves?
Yes, lawyers did look at the book; but it's not personal in any way. Realistically, I'm very complimentary to both Mark Zuckerberg and (Facebook Chief Operating Officer) Sheryl Sandberg. They were friends of mine and I have enormous respect for them. The business culture in the U.S. today is so focused on building shareholder value to the exclusion of everything else, operating with almost no rules. Facebook was a part of a culture that was built around the notion of moving fast and breaking things. And since no one ever complained, they never stopped. It became clear, at least to me, that the consequences of that policy were going to be incredibly destructive to democracy, to public health, to privacy and, quite frankly, to the whole economy.
To be sure, getting nearly 40% of the world's population to use Facebook is an extraordinary achievement. That said, and you know this as well as anyone, that's also fertile territory for power and influence from a company that is pretty much unaccountable.
That's the sad thing. When people ask, "Am I addicted to it, or not?" I answer, "Well, when did you first check your smartphone this morning? Before you peed or while you're peeing?" For most people, the stuff that animates us most, the stuff that gets us to share things, are the things that make us afraid or make us outraged, not necessarily because we like that stuff. And so, the site that winds us up is disinformation, hate speech or conspiracy theories. That's amazingly destructive both in a democracy sense but also for people's health. And that's exactly what we've seen.
To be clear, you say in your book that Facebook remains a threat to democracy because democracy depends on facts and values.
By giving people what they want and reinforcing the things they respond to, everybody lives in their own bubble, their own version of The Truman Show. That's where you can have your own facts. That's how we wind up with a third of the population denying the existence of climate change. Another 5-6% believe there's a link between vaccines and autism. Still others believe in a flat Earth. And these are not groups that have a lot of overlap, so the result is that roughly 40% of the American population identifies with at least one thing that is demonstratively false. Facebook and Instagram and Google and YouTube didn't create polarization, but they have magnified it intensely. The sad part is their unwillingness to accept responsibility or to adjust their products to minimize that damage.
Would you be shocked to know that a whole subsection of the Mueller Report discussed social media?
Not even remotely surprised. I think the Mueller Report had an opportunity to go much more deeply into the category, because they only really looked at how things related to Russian interference. There are biases built into the products that allow inflammatory campaigns to have cheaper distribution than campaigns with a positive message. It's really a topic that's worthy of looking at. In my book I try really hard not to relitigate the 2016 election. What I'm really worried about is 2020 and beyond.
You know Mark Zuckerberg as well as anyone. Is he afraid of changing the Facebook model because he's afraid of Facebook losing value?
In the beginning, Mark genuinely believed that his vision of connecting everyone in the world on one network was so important. It justified any action necessary to get there. And the stock market rewarded him. I think now, under a lot of pressure, Mark is doing one positive thing: engaging in the political dialogue. But he's trying to cede as little as possible. Take, for example, the Nancy Pelosi video and Facebook's decision to leave that up. [Earlier this month, a manipulated video of Speaker of the House Pelosi slurred her speech, making her appear drunk. Facebook refused to remove the video].
Facebook's argument against removing the video was that it saw it as free speech.
I understand that's their argument, but it's demonstrably false. Everybody's Facebook newsfeed has been massaged by editorial choices made by Facebook, and at some point, they have to step forward and recognize that they have a responsibility to society. Some things are so obviously wrong that they have to take action. They can create this data voodoo doll of each and every one of us, and they use that to manipulate the choices in our lives. We may not recognize how dangerous this has become, but it affects us all.