We Screwed Up!

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe Roger McNamee. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28

When did Facebook start to seem evil? Was it last March, when United Nations investigators accused the platform of enabling the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar? Or was it a few days after that, when it was revealed that the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested millions of people’s personal data to target votes, momentarily sending Facebook’s reputation (and stock) plummeting? Or in 2014, when researchers revealed that they had conducted a massive psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 users—without their consent—to determine whether manipulating feeds to display more depressing content would make some people sadder? (It did.) In hindsight, it’s easy to argue these harms were built into the site from the beginning, when a teenager who said that he liked “the idea of comparing two people together” programmed a tool to allow Harvard students to decide whether or not their classmates were hot.

For Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and a self-described tech evangelist, the warning signs began to accumulate at the start of 2016. He was noticing more hate speech on the site; attack ads and extremist memes seemed to be spreading faster than the news. Meanwhile, reporters had revealed that a third-party tool was collecting information about members of Black Lives Matter–related groups and sending it to police; that housing and employment advertisers were able to exclude protected demographic groups; and that the platform’s face recognition software was being used to identify people in photos without their permission. McNamee drafted an op-ed detailing these problems for Recode, a Silicon Valley–focused publication. “I am really sad about Facebook,” it began, like a status update. “I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed.”

Mark Zuckerberg in a demonstration video for his custom-made AI assistant, Jarvis, 2016.

But McNamee was hesitant to go public without giving the company a chance to respond. He had, after all, once served as an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg and had even helped to broker the meet-cute in which Sheryl Sandberg signed on as the company’s COO. Ten days before the November 2016 presidential election, McNamee sent his draft to Zuckerberg and Sandberg. He received polite replies and was passed off to Dan Rose, a senior executive at the company, who was tasked with hearing McNamee out, seemingly in the hope that he would exhaust himself and shelve the op-ed. For the next three months, McNamee sent Rose and his colleagues example after example of bad actors taking advantage of the platform. McNamee assumed at first that Facebook was clueless. As the dialogue wore on and the problems worsened, it became evident that Facebook just didn’t care. By then, McNamee’s draft had become too dated to publish. So he wrote a book instead.

Part memoir, part indictment, Zucked chronicles Facebook’s history to demonstrate that its practices of “invasive surveillance, careless sharing of private data, and behavior modification in pursuit of unprecedented scale and influence,” far from being a series of accidental oversights, were in fact foundational to the company’s astronomical success. This historical approach allows McNamee to draw valuable connections between present-day troubles and the company’s philosophical source code, outlining, for instance, how Cambridge Analytica’s malfeasance was rooted in Facebook’s decision, almost a decade ago, to allow third-party developers to harvest information about our friends.

McNamee spends much of Zucked inveighing against Facebook’s business model, which preys on our emotions to expose us to targeted advertising. Our behavior on the platform may feel organic, but it’s actually orchestrated far upstream, by what is arguably the world’s most influential artificial intelligence. The goal of Facebook’s AI, as the company’s engineers have essentially admitted, is to keep us on the site for as long as possible. To do so, it shows us content that resembles whatever most engaged us in the past: usually, what has made us angry, fearful, outraged, or some combination of the three. The more engaged we are, the more we’re oozing valuable personal data and looking at ads. Even worse, McNamee emphasizes, is that it’s not just products that Facebook is selling us—it’s our own warped and turbocharged ideologies. Join one conspiracy group and Facebook might suggest joining another. Hate speech is more contagious than photos of puppies or babies, and the filter bubbles that envelop us encourage its spread.

This is where McNamee rightly recognizes the platform’s historical novelty: No other corporation has ever had so much access to—and power over—our most intimate thoughts and feelings. Facebook knows things about us that we don’t even know, or may have long forgotten. Every share, click, like, tag, and comment further trains and refines Facebook’s AI. “All that data in one place would be a target for bad actors, even if it were well-protected,” McNamee writes. “But Facebook’s business model is to give the opportunity to exploit that data to just about anyone who is willing to pay for the privilege.” Sometimes payment isn’t even necessary. As the New York Times revealed recently, Facebook gave companies including Spotify and Microsoft access to user data for free. When asked to comment on the latest installment in what has begun to seem like an endless series of violations, the company offered a sort of Borgesian defense: It didn’t need to get consent from users, because all of the partners with which it shared their data were essentially extensions of Facebook—a company itself essentially controlled by one person. The thirty-four-year-old Zuckerberg (whom McNamee refers to throughout the book, with an insider’s casualness, as “Zuck”) has 60 percent of the voting rights for a public forum in which nearly a third of the world’s population participates. As one former Facebook employee points out: “Even the president of the United States has checks and balances.”

By early 2017, McNamee has joined the growing chorus of critics who argue that, absent strong government intervention or a massive user uprising, there is nothing to stop Facebook from continuing to undermine our democracy. He heads to Washington, DC, where he lobbies for reining in Facebook through antitrust enforcement and other aggressive legislative solutions, such as a bill of privacy rights. Social-media giants, he tells congressmen during a visit to Capitol Hill, have an incentive to manipulate our behavior and will continue to do so until there are laws on the books to prevent it. “I became convinced, in spite of myself,” he writes, “that even though Facebook provided a compelling experience for most of its users, it was terrible for America and needed to change or be changed.”

The time line of Facebook’s transgressions that McNamee supplies will be familiar to readers of the news. More interesting is what the book reveals, at times unintentionally, about the utopian worldview of the company’s enablers. It’s telling that until 2016, McNamee saw Facebook, then the fourth most valuable company in America, as “a victim” of bad actors exploiting its platform. Even while most of Zucked is dedicated to documenting the platform’s civil-liberties and human-rights abuses, he remains invested—emotionally and financially—in the belief that “Facebook was a company of people with good intentions.” At one point, after laying out the intricate strategies by which Facebook manipulates our attention, he rather desperately adds that “they do not do this because they are bad people.”

There’s a certain poignancy to his desire for the company to remain innocent even after he’s proved it guilty. McNamee espouses the naive hope that when Zuck and company are confronted with the extent of the damage they’ve caused, they will finally and sincerely apologize. (He imagines them pleading: “Now we get it! We screwed up! We will do everything possible to fix the problems and restore trust.”) But to fix these problems would mean to reduce engagement and profits; it would, in other words, mean that Facebook would have to reinvent itself as something that is no longer Facebook. McNamee is far from the only one so attached to the belief that Facebook—one of the most powerful businesses on the planet—knows not what it does. “We suffered from a failure of imagination,” he writes, referring to his elite milieu. “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, anyone in our community.”

This failure of imagination has not been confined to Silicon Valley. Until about two years ago, most journalists covering the Big Five—Facebook, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft—focused more on the gains and losses of wealthy shareholders than on their millions of disempowered users. Only recently have many reporters started to pay attention to problems that, for years, have been hiding in plain sight. Even now, most of these stories tend to share McNamee’s reluctance to prosecute the giants of the tech industry as villains. To illustrate a report on “Facebook’s Two Years of Hell,” the March 2018 issue of Wired featured a bruised and doe-eyed Zuck on its cover. He looked like a college student who had just fallen off his bike. He was hurting and, as a decent human being, you wanted to help.

How long will optimism continue to prevail over experience? Despite his critique of Facebook, McNamee remains idealistic about Silicon Valley’s potential to do good. He overlooks the industry’s contributions to global inequality, its environmental impact, and its exploitative labor practices. In the acknowledgments, he thanks “Tim Cook and all of Apple” as champions of freedom and data privacy. In the bibliographic essay, on the last page of the book, he writes, “There is a very strong argument that the success of Amazon represents the greatest accomplishment of any startup since 1990. Bezos is amazing.” Reading this sincere praise feels like watching the last scene of a horror movie, when you realize the killer is still in the attic. An optimist might say that McNamee has set himself up for a sequel, one in which he eventually comes to discover that the whole industry, and not just Facebook, is fucked.


Ava Kofman is a contributing writer at The Intercept.