Facebook vs democracy?

Roger McNamee’s book Zucked charts the author's journey from an enthusiastic investor and supporter of the tech giant, to an anxious citizen

Published 5 years ago on Apr 06, 2019 2 minutes Read

Silicon Valley had had its share of bad people, but the limits of the technology itself had generally prevented widespread damage. Facebook came along at a time when it was possible for the first time to create tech businesses so influential that no country would be immune to their influence. No one I knew ever considered that success could have a downside. From its earliest days, Facebook was a company of people with good intentions. In the years I knew them best, the Facebook team focused on attracting the largest possible audience, not on monetization. Persuasive technology and manipulation never came up. It was all babies and puppies and sharing with friends.

I am not certain when Facebook first applied persuasive technology to its design, but I can imagine that the decision was not controversial. Advertisers and media companies had been using similar techniques for decades. Despite complaints about television from educators and psychologists, few people objected strenuously to the persuasive techniques employed by networks and advertisers. Policy makers and the public viewed them as legitimate business tools. On PCs, those tools were no more harmful than on television. Then came smartphones, which changed everything. User count and usage exploded, as did the impact of persuasive technologies, enabling widespread addiction. That is when Facebook ran afoul of the law of unintended consequences. Zuck and his team did not anticipate that the design choices that made Facebook so compelling for users would also enable a wide range of undesirable behaviors. When those behaviors became obvious after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook first denied their existence, then responsibility for them. Perhaps it was a reflexive corporate reaction. In any case, Zuck, Sheryl, the team at Facebook, and the board of directors missed an opportunity to build a new trust with users and policy makers. Those of us who had advised Zuck and profited from Facebook’s success also bear some responsibility for what later transpired. We suffered from a failure of imagination. The notion that massive success by a tech startup could undermine society and democracy did not occur to me or, so far as I know, to anyone in our community. Now the whole world is paying for it.

In the second year of our relationship, Zuck gave Elevation an opportunity to invest. I pitched the idea to my partners, emphasizing my hope that Facebook would become a company in Google’s class. The challenge was that Zuck’s offer would have us invest in Facebook indirectly, through a complicated, virtual security. Three of our partners were uncomfortable with the structure of the investment for Elevation, but they encouraged the rest of us to make personal investments. So Bono, Marc Bodnick, and I invested. Two years later, an opportunity arose for Elevation to buy stock in Facebook, and my partners jumped on it.

This is an extract from Roger McNamee's Zucked published by Penguin Press