Roger McNamee: Facebook's disruption of democracy

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 14 March 2018

Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee knew something wasn't right with the platform in early 2016 during the early stages of the US election.

He suspected bad actors were using Facebook for propaganda during the US Democratic primaries.

McNamee had been a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook’s early days and persuaded him not to sell in 2006 when the company was in its infancy.

He says he tried to warn Zuckerberg that its advertising tool was being used to manipulate people, but Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg didn’t want to know. 

Roger McNamee,

Roger McNamee, Photo: AFP / FILE

McNamee says the company is becoming a threat to democracy for its role in spreading third party-generated fake news.

He first noticed a problem in 2016 when he saw memes attacking Hilary Clinton ostensibly from groups associated with her opponent Bernie Sanders.

“They were viciously misogynistic in a way that no campaign in the US could get away with. It appeared people were spending money to make these things go viral.”

Then, during the Brexit referendum in the UK in June 2016, activity from pro-leave groups caught his eye.

“I realised Facebook as a platform is much more effective for people who have a political message that is inflammatory.

“Facebook is really the first product ever created in digital media that is designed and built around human emotions and has advantages no other product has.”

Its incredibly successful model is to monopolise users’ attention, he says, and third parties cunningly used this to create outrage loops preying on “really visceral low level evolutionary responses.”

Its ubiquity, the personalised nature of each user’s channel and the advent of smartphones meant people were accessible day and night.  

“Suddenly you had the ability to manipulate what people thought.”

He says Facebook gave advertisers the ability to do just that.

“The same tools that were so effective for selling toothpaste could also be used to manipulate elections. It’s happened all over western Europe and we’ve seen it in the United States.”

McNamee has written several editorials and talked to lawmakers about how to fix Facebook and is hopeful Zuckerberg and Sandberg will come to the party and rethink the business model.

But he’s not convinced by their latest moves to safeguard against political manipulation.

“They de-emphasised publishers and they amplified the signal from your family, your friends and the groups that you’re in.”

He says that would have made the problem worse, not better two years ago.

“It turns out when people get misled it’s by family, friends and groups they’re in.”

The move was more about corporate self-protection he says.

“They were trying to reduce their exposure of being accused of being a media company by getting media stuff out of the news feed, but the effect of it is to make media manipulation easier not harder.”

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