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Early Facebook Investor: We Need to Hold Big Tech Accountable for Creating “Toxic Digital Spills”

Web ExclusiveOctober 23, 2019
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Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee talks about how Big Tech companies are amplifying hate speech and disinformation. He also talks more about his book, “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation with Roger McNamee, author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. He’s had a 34-year career in Silicon Valley and was an early investor in Facebook. He’s also a musician, is on tour, so we’re reaching him in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Now, Roger, I wanted to start with an AOC tweet. That’s right, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who I saw this weekend at the largest presidential primary rally so far. It was the “Bernie’s Back” rally. It was over 26,000 people in Queensbridge, New York. It was rather astounding, to say the least. AOC came out with her endorsement for him. Michael Moore also endorsed him, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker. The San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz also endorsed him. But AOC tweeted, “Hypothetically, if you were, say, a member of Congress sitting on the Financial Services Committee given 5 minutes to question Mark Zuckerberg, what would you ask?” What would you advise these congressmembers ask Mark Zuckerberg, the man you knew very well, you invested in early on?

ROGER McNAMEE: So, I think the issue for all members of Congress, irrespective of what committee they’re on, essentially distills to the same thing, which is, “Mr. Zuckerberg, you’ve built one of the most successful businesses in American history, but at enormous cost.” To me, Facebook is like the oil companies of the '50s. It's artificially profitable because it pours waste products wherever it feels like. Think about it. In the ’50s, chemical companies would pour mercury into fresh water. Mining companies would leave the residue wherever it fell. Gas stations would pour oil into the sewer. And the destruction to our public health and to our environment was enormous.

And eventually we woke up and realized that the oil companies should be responsible for all this. And I believe that every member of Congress — in fact, everyone at every level of government in the United States and elsewhere — needs to hold internet platforms accountable, because what they’re creating are toxic digital spills, and they’re doing enormous harm to society. And in financial services, in my mind, their question today relates to a cryptocurrency. There is no way in God’s green Earth Facebook should be allowed to do that. But not just Facebook, no corporation should be allowed to create a currency that competes with the dollar. That’s just not in the national interest.

In fact, you know, you mentioned a moment ago Greta Thunberg. If I can just pivot slightly, there’s a point I would love to make to all of the viewers, which is, if you look at the biggest issues we face as a country, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s anti-vax, whether it is gun violence or white supremacy or anti-immigrant, on every one of these issues, the harmful side of the argument, the one that is denying climate change or is promoting anti-vax or promoting gun violence or white supremacy, in each case, that side gets amplification, because of internet platforms, that gives them more political power than their numbers should allow. And if we want to fix climate change, if we want to fix gun violence or end the mania of anti-vax, we’re going to have to do something about internet platforms. And that is the common issue affecting politics across all of America.

And let’s understand, this is not an accident. This stuff is not about the freedom of speech or freedom of expression. It’s about the fact that these companies amplify hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories, because that stuff is just more profitable for them. And in my mind, they should no more be allowed to do that than a chemical company should be allowed to pour mercury into fresh water.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about some of what you wrote in Zucked. I mean, all of these issues, you raise. But you write about changes that grew the social network into the giant it is today. You say, “In researching this book for key moments in the history of Facebook, one that stands out occurred months before I got involved. In the fall of 2005, Facebook gave users the ability to upload photographs. They did it with a new wrinkle—tagging the people in the photo—that helped to define Facebook’s approach to engagement. Tagging proved to be a technology with persuasive power, as users felt obligated to react or reciprocate when informed they had been tagged. A few months after my first meeting with Zuck, Facebook made two huge changes: it launched News Feed, and it opened itself up to anyone over the age of thirteen with a valid email address.” Keep talking about News Feed and the significance of photographs when it comes, for example, to the issue of privacy, and what Mark Zuckerberg understood.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, I think that Zuck had a clearer understanding of these issues than I gave him credit for at the time. His notion of collecting everyone in the world on one network, you know, had elements in it of virtue. You could see that there were cases, as with the Women’s March or Black Lives Matter or the March for Our Lives, where you could use a network like that to organize people for good.

The problem with it is that the way Mark did it, the way he did all of these things, was to eliminate friction. His notion was he didn’t want people thinking about posts; he just wanted them scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. And by eliminating the friction, he eliminated essentially the opportunity for people to adapt to what he was doing. He eliminated, really, opportunities for creativity, for contemplation and debate. And in doing so, he really has undermined the social fabric of the country.

And it started so innocently. Photo tagging doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it does trigger this need for social reciprocity, which is essentially involuntary in us, and it becomes a habit. They send you a notification. You think the notification is personal. It’s from an AI. And it’s there to provoke you. And it provokes you enough to create a habit. And for most of us, the habit becomes an addiction. And I say it’s an addiction because ask yourself this: I mean, Amy, when do you check your smartphone first thing in the morning? Is it before you pee or while you’re peeing? Because for most of us, that’s the range, right? Nobody waits until after they’re done.

And so, at the end of the day, once they have us addicted, they own us. And then, after that, it’s about the manipulation and amplification of hostile voices in order to keep this whole thing moving and profitable for them. And it started innocently, and it happened like a frog in water coming to a boil. Right? We just didn’t notice what was going on. And each new thing was more convenient than the last thing. And convenience is a narcotic. We’re all hooked to it.

And the trick here is we now have to recognize that, wait a minute, we actually have things in common, that meeting face to face, making eye contact, is actually really valuable, and that we shouldn’t allow technology to control our lives. And I don’t want to be, you know, the negative person here, because at the end of the day it’s not about technology. There’s nothing wrong with social media or search. The issue is this business model.

We can have social media. We can have all these things we like without all the harm. But we have to have regulation. And it’s got to be antitrust, for competitive reasons, and then you have to eliminate this massive market in people’s most intimate private data. I mean, these companies act as though they’re doctors, and when the doctor inspects your liver, that they then own your liver. I mean, that’s ridiculous. Companies should — our data should be a human right. It should not be there for third parties to treat as an asset and to commercialize. They should not touch it. Nobody should be making any kind of market in it, any more than you’re allowed to make a market in your kidneys or your legs.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger McNamee, what’s been Facebook’s role in what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism? I know you’ve done events with her. She’s the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, Shoshana Zuboff, in my opinion, deserves a Nobel Prize in economics. I believe her book is the most important book on economics that I’ve read, you know, maybe since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. I mean, it’s extraordinary. And I’m a true believer of Shoshana’s work. So, Facebook was a late adopter. Google invented surveillance capitalism. And when Sheryl went from —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, think of this as surveillance capitalism is really about looking at the world and realizing that there’s data everywhere, and that if you captured all of it, if you captured all the data, you could convert human experience into data voodoo dolls that allow you to both forecast people’s behavior and manipulate it. And Google’s strategy was played out over a very long period of time. This didn’t happen quickly. It took them at least 10 years before they were able to get it to work all the way through the system.

But the basic notion is, you know, you go into a product like Google Maps, and you expect it to always give you the fastest route. But Google’s mission in this is not always to give you the fastest route. It’s to keep the traffic moving smoothly on the whole system. In order to do that, some of the time, some of the people have to have inferior routes just to keep everybody else moving quickly. And so, that’s just built in. Google’s goals are different than ours.

And the central problem with surveillance capitalism is that it takes away our autonomy. It takes away our self-determination. And it interferes with democracy because, for all intents and purposes, they’re now moving from manipulating us to manipulating whole populations. And Facebook is trying to do that with this cryptocurrency Libra that we’re talking about this morning. Google is trying to do it with smart cities, what they call Sidewalk Labs. Amazon is trying to do it with all of its deals with police departments and other law enforcement agencies. And Microsoft is trying to do it with artificial intelligence.

And because there are no rules, there’s nobody protecting us. And I think it’s our job to say, “Stop.” We need to have a moment of reflection. And we need to have a trial. We need to put surveillance capitalism on trial and ask, “In what world is this in the interests of the people?” because it sure doesn’t feel that way to me. I mean, these companies are intensely profitable. But think of all the harm that’s come out of it. It’s just not worth it.

And we can have the services we like without that business model. And that’s the way the world should be. And that’s why Senator Warren is so right in her approach to this, which is, we have to restore competitive balance to the economy, and then we also have to deal with the problems of surveillance capitalism. And she’s got both parts of it right, and she’s the only candidate that does so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, how would you assess Bernie Sanders on this issue? Where do you think he’s falling short, falling behind Senator Warren?

ROGER McNAMEE: So, I think — you know, I think Senator Sanders has come out against Facebook, but I don’t think that he has spent as much time understanding the issue. I just don’t think it’s core to his portfolio of issues. I think he recognizes there’s something wrong. I think I would trust Senator Sanders to bring in people to look into the issue. But it’s not one of his core issues, where this is a core part of Senator Warren’s platform.

And, you know, I think, fundamentally, capitalism is broken now. Surveillance capitalism differs from good capitalism the same way that Soviet communism would differ from it. It’s all about, you know, a mandated, highly controlled authoritarian regime. And it’s weird, because it’s authoritarian but under the control of a corporation. And so, in my mind, that’s not something that should be permitted without a long public discussion.

And when I look at the candidates, you know, just because somebody hasn’t made this a front-and-center issue doesn’t make them a bad person. But I do give extra credit to the people who’ve put the most energy into this, because I don’t think we’re going to solve climate change, I don’t think we’re going to solve gun violence, anti-immigrant or any of the other issues facing the country, unless we deal with these internet platforms first. And, you know, Senator Warren just got started on this way before anybody else did.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think candidates, whether presidential or down ballot, whatever, are concerned about taking on Facebook, because Facebook will then take on them?

ROGER McNAMEE: Definitely. Oh, definitely. I mean, I worry a lot about Xavier Becerra, who’s our attorney general in California, who’s conspicuously not part of either the Facebook or Google cases. And I like Attorney General Becerra very much as a person, but they’ve obviously scared him into not engaging this stuff. And that makes me very sad.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that takes a lot. He’s one of only like three attorneys general. I mean —

ROGER McNAMEE: Yeah, no, exactly. And, you know, I think the same thing is going on with Senator Harris, and I think the same thing is going on with Mayor Buttigieg. And I think there are lots of candidates all over. But the one thing that I think we can see is that this issue has reached a critical mass in the public conversation, and particularly in the political conversation, where you see members of Congress on both sides, you see departments of the Trump administration engaging in this. It isn’t something that is inherently a polarized issue the way everything else is, because it affects — it doesn’t matter who you are; you’re being harmed by this. And, you know, you may not recognize it, and that’s OK. It’s complicated. I mean, I spent my whole life doing this stuff, and look how slow I was to figure it out. So, I have total empathy and sympathy for anybody who sits there and goes, “Roger, this is really confusing.” I go, “You’re right. It is.”

But all I ask people to do is engage with me in a thought experiment. Imagine that what I’m saying is correct. What would you want to do differently, if I were right, than what you’re doing today? Because in five years, it’s going to really matter if we do something versus doing nothing. And I’m hopeful that we’re going to make the 2020 election a referendum on Google and Facebook and the internet platforms, because that’s the fastest way to solve all the other problems in our economy.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how Facebook remains a threat to the powerless around the world.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, this is what makes me so sad, because none of this had to be this way. But Facebook and Google are so ubiquitous. When you have billions of users, you’re forced to align with the powerful. There’s just no way around it, because you need the permission of the powerful to operate. And so, if you watch what Facebook and Google do, they do everything in their power to cozy up to authoritarians to avoid getting pushed out of those countries. And then they basically spend their time defying democratic countries and challenging them to do anything about it, assuming that the users, we the people, are going to protect them from any kind of accountability.

My job, and I hope the job of everybody watching this show, is to make sure they don’t get away with that strategy, because they are a tool of the powerful. I mean, what we learned in the Arab Spring, what we’ve learned with climate change, is that the powerful can use these tools every bit as easily as populist groups can. And they have way more advantage, because they have more resources, they have more people and money to put at the problem. And they’re going to do so.

And we see this all around the world. We see in Myanmar, in Asia, what the U.N. called a textbook ethnic cleansing that was done by associates of the government. In the Philippines, Facebook has been used to to essentially cause the public to support death squads that are extrajudicial killings. You know, we’ve seen the terrorism in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the killing at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which is where I am now. And these things are all enabled by these platforms, because there’s nothing in the platforms to protect us from harm.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you last speak to Mark Zuckerberg? And —

ROGER McNAMEE: Well, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — how did he respond to Zucked, your book?

ROGER McNAMEE: Well, I have no idea. So, I have not communicated with Mark since the 30th of October of 2016. When I sent the original memo to Mark and Sheryl, they both got back to me right away, and they couldn’t have been more polite, couldn’t have been more friendly. But they were also dismissive. They handed me off to one of their colleagues, who is a good friend of mine. And so, I recognized that, you know, this was not some —

AMY GOODMAN: This is right before the election.

ROGER McNAMEE: Nine days before the election, right? So it’s a really prime period of time. So, I have not had a real conversation with an officer of Facebook since February of 2017. Now, I know, because they called ahead to many of the press stops I had on my book tour, that they weren’t super happy about it. But the reality is that I didn’t say anything that I couldn’t prove. And so, as a consequence, it was mostly a matter of them just using ad hominem and, you know, trying to cast aspersions on my — on the authoritativeness of what I was saying. And you know what? They’re entitled to do that, right? It’s a fair country. They can say what they want.

You know, I’m lucky because I’ve been successful professionally, and so they have nothing I want. But, boy, they’ve been really successful at suppressing a lot of other kinds of dissent, because they are so powerful, and they can go to politicians and make it very clear they can throw their weight behind a competitor. I mean, that’s — for all intents and purposes, you know, Zuck is saying he’s anti-Warren and pro-Buttigieg. And that strikes me as just totally inappropriate. It may not be illegal, but I just — I can’t imagine that a company with that level of influence over the democratic process itself should be allowed to have anything other than a completely neutral position.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Roger McNamee, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, again, early investor in Silicon Valley, early investor in Facebook. And let me ask you, just very quickly — I was just interested — you were also an early investor in Wikimedia, in Wikipedia. And talk about the significance of what Wikipedia has done and how you would compare it to Facebook.

ROGER McNAMEE: So, keep in mind, I was an investor in the sense that I raised the early money that paid for the Wikimedia Foundation. So, it’s a not-for-profit. And I’m a huge believer in not-for-profit journalism. I mean, that’s why it’s such a thrill for me to be on your show, because, you know, I worked for the National Geographic as an adviser. I worked with Wikimedia really closely. And I’m a huge believer in the world of fact. And I’m a big believer that not-for-profit journalism has structural advantages over journalism in the for-profit sector. And we see this every day. You know, The New York Times has this horrible inability to state the obvious. They have to do both sides of issues that only have one side. And, you know, that kind of stuff is the result of profit pressures. And journalism — there’s a lot of amazing journalism being done today and a lot of really bad management of journalistic businesses.

So, I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia. I’m a huge fan of National Geographic. I’m a huge fan of public television and public radio. I’m a huge fan of Democracy Now! You know, I look at all of these things, and I think for the country’s democracy to have any chance of flourishing, we need to have a vibrant, not-for-profit journalistic world, just as a counterbalance to the pressures that you see in the for-profit world.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger McNamee, again, thank you very much, author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. I’m Amy Goodman.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.

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