As It Happens

Mark Zuckerberg's former mentor says 'parasitic' Facebook threatens our health and democracy

An early Facebook investor and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg says the company has not been honest with itself about its culpability in the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 U.S. election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Story transcript

Every year, Mark Zuckerberg famously makes a New Year's resolution. In the past, they have been pretty ordinary: running a mile a day, reading two books every month, learning Mandarin.

OK, that last one's actually pretty hard. But this year's resolution might be harder — or near impossible if you ask Zuckerberg's former mentor Roger McNamee. 

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg says his resolution is to fix Facebook. As you've probably heard in the news, he wants to "defend against interference by nation states" and make sure that "time spent on Facebook is time well spent."

McNamee doesn't think Zuckerberg is going far enough. McNamee was an early investor in Facebook and is a managing director at Elevation Partners. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to McNamee about why Facebook's current business model is broken and how he might fix it.

Mr. McNamee, how difficult will it be for Mark Zuckerberg to fulfill his 2018 resolution to fix Facebook?

I think it is nearly impossible for Mark to do what he promised. I think there are at least two primary factors driving it. The first is I think the commitment itself was insincere. I think the company has treated the recent criticism as a public relations problem rather than a reflection of a systemic issue within the product. The second aspect is that because of the issues related to election manipulation, related to addiction and the other public health aspects of social media that have become a problem — those things are embedded in the architecture of Facebook. There is no way to address them without making the business meaningfully less profitable than it is today or scrapping this business model in favour of a different one. 

Roger McNamee is a managing director at Elevation Partners and was an early investor in Facebook. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

Just on the election manipulation part, I mean this is a huge issue. It wasn't like Facebook was hacked by the Russians. They used it normally. They used it as Facebook allows it to be used so how is it possible to fix that?

I think the first step is recognizing that the design of the product makes it exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. To fix that you have to go in and change the way Facebook works for all advertisers, not just bad actors. I'm actually sympathetic. I understand why they are cautious about wanting to do that. They created this thing and for a dozen years they had massive positive feedback from the whole world and then it's as though, suddenly, we came to understand there was a dark side. The current business model is parasitic. It harms the users and that can't go on. 

And also, Facebook is the only entity that could actually break through the filter bubbles that it has created for these people. There's no other outside source of information except if Facebook lets it through the filter bubble. Is that not part of the issue?

That's a huge part of the issue. Your questions are brilliant because of this notion that filter bubbles are really an invention. When Facebook says we give people what they want, what they're really saying is that their goal is to reinforce existing beliefs, to make them more extreme.

Essentially, for Facebook, the most valuable emotions, the things that generate the most engagement and the most sharing, are fear and anger. The business model right now, which is to say advertising, is dependent on getting people afraid and angry. It's not like they do that explicitly, it's just that that what the system rewards most. So the people who have a message that emphasizes fear and anger have a giant advantage over anybody who is emphasizing something that is calm or constructing.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Roger McNamee.