Former Google and Facebook Insiders Push Back Against the Platforms They Helped Build
Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee discusses the dark side of technology. (LoboStudioHamburg/pixbay.com)
For nearly 35 years, tech investor Roger McNamee considered himself a technology optimist.
"I think the whole country got conditioned as I did to this notion that technology was a force for good that was always changing the world for the better," he said.
McNamee's thoughts began to change when he started seeing political memes on Facebook during the 2016 Democratic primary elections. "I realized, oh my gosh, the way Facebook works, it gives an advantage to negative campaigns, particularly ones based on fear and anger."
McNamee was an early investor in Facebook and a mentor to founder Mark Zuckerberg. The thoughts he began to have about Facebook, and social media in general, were a revelation.
"I think that technology was a force for good until the most recent generation," McNamee said. "I think what happened was that the combination of social networks with advertising business models created perverse incentives."
McNamee says Facebook in particular gives bad actors direct access to billions of people. "It offers a personalized channel for more than 2 billion individual customers on a smartphone that's available every waking moment of the day, made it possible to persuade people of things that they would not otherwise believe."
McNamee recently teamed up with former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, technologist Renée DiResta and several other former employees of Google and Facebook to create the Center for Humane Technology. The purpose of the virtual center is to come up with ways to counter the adverse effects of technology consumption.
This week, the center announced a partnership with the nonprofit media literacy group Common Sense Media to kick off a campaign called the Truth About Tech. The goal is to bring awareness to the health impacts of digital consumption for children.
"We are still working like crazy to figure out the answers," McNamee said.
Some of the actions the group is taking include lobbying for legislation to curtail the power of big tech companies. One of the bills supported by the Center for Humane Technologies comes from California by Los Angeles Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, which would require digital bots to be identified on social media sites.
"As I look at all this I want to encourage Facebook to recognize that we as users know they didn't intend to cause us harm, but they do owe their users an honest effort to fix the problems," McNamee said.
In response to McNamee and the Center for Humane Technology, Antigone Davis, Facebook head of global safety policy, offered this statement: "Facebook is a valued part of many people's lives. We take our responsibility seriously and we’ve already taken steps from our recent changes to News Feed to the parent controls we built into Messenger Kids -- which is ads-free. Moving forward we’re committed to being part of the conversation."
Earlier this month Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's big focus for 2018 is returning the platform to its original mission, to connect family and friends. Zuckerberg said users will see fewer posts from businesses, brands and media in order to encourage "meaningful interactions between people."
The social media platform is also still a valued part of McNamee's life.
"Yes, I'm still on it. I still own the stock," he said. "I mean, I'm as addicted as anybody to that product. It does so many good things, but I can also see this dark side."
McNamee said he believes challenging the very companies he and others have helped build is the first step in changing the tide.
"I'm really deeply committed to trying to help people recognize that we have an election coming this year, and as Americans we need to find a way to resist the toxic efforts of bad actors," McNamee said.