‘You Have a Persuasion Engine Unlike Any Created in History’


Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is testifying in front of Congress this week. To accompany the testimony, Select All is publishing transcripts of interviews with four ex-Facebook employees and one former investor, conducted as part of a wider project on the crisis within the tech industry that will be published later this week. These interviews include

• Former Facebook manager Sandy Parakilas on privacy, addiction, and why Facebook must “dramatically” change its business model.

• Former Facebook designer Soleio Cuervo on Facebook’s commitment to users, what the media gets wrong, and why regulation is unnecessary.

• Former Zuckerberg speechwriter Kate Losse on how the Facebook founder thinks and what is hardest for him to wrap his mind around.

• Former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez on the “sociopathic scene” of Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg’s “disingenuous and strange” reaction to the election.

This interview is with Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook. He is the managing director of Elevation Partners.

Is there a political appetite to having these conversations and starting to think about action?
Keep in mind, people are bringing at least three different possible motivations to having a conversation.

What are they?
Tristan [Harris, former Google designer and founder of the Center for Humane Technology] started with the notion of public health, which frankly is the root of the whole thing. Which is that essentially social media, but especially Facebook, created an advertising platform that, essentially, achieves the most extreme version of persuasion ever achieved by a medium.

If you go back to the early days of propaganda theory, Edward Bernays had a hypothesis that to implant an idea and make it universally acceptable, you needed to have the same message appearing in every medium all the time, for a really long period of time. The notion was, it could only be done by a government. That was certainly true into the late ’50s or early ’60s, but network television achieved a form of it in the ’60s.

That was a very interesting thing, because network television did create a filter bubble. It was a broadcast filter bubble. In a sense, it created a common set of facts and it brought the country together. In fact, the criticism of the time was that it bred conformity, right? It wasn’t like it was doing anything actually harmful, it was just kind of making everybody the same. If you imagine the concept that people in advertising and the folks who created the media that supported them, they’re in the persuasion business. They’re trying to implant an idea in people’s heads and have it become a habit.

Then Facebook came along, and it had this ability to personalize for every single user. Instead of being a broadcast model, it was now 2.1 billion individualized channels. It was the most effective product ever created to revolve around human emotions. They’re tracking you everywhere on their site, and what are you doing on their site? You start out by sharing things that reveal your emotional hot buttons. They simply built a business model around that combination of a high degree of personalization and knowledge of people’s hot buttons.

If you go back to the old adage from tabloid newspapers — “If it bleeds, it leads” — if you apply that to the highly personalized narrow-cast model of the emotional social network, you basically are driven to the outrage cycle at a personalized level. They’re basically trying to trigger fear and anger to get the outrage cycle going, because outrage is what makes you be more deeply engaged. You spend more time on the site and you share more stuff. Therefore, you’re going to be exposed to more ads and that makes you more valuable.

In 2008, when they put their first app on the iPhone, the whole ballgame changed. Suddenly Bernays’s dream of the universal platform reaching everybody through every medium at the same time was achieved by a single device. You marry the social triggers to personalized content on a device that most people check on their way to pee in the morning and as the last thing they do before they turn the light out at night. You literally have a persuasion engine unlike any created in history.

If you parse what Unilever said about Facebook, when they threatened to pull their ads, their message was, “Guys, your platform’s too good. You’re basically harming our customers. Because you’re manipulating what they think. And more importantly, you’re manipulating what they feel. You’re causing so much outrage that they become addicted to outrage.” The dopamine you get from outrage is just so addictive.

We’re now sort of getting into a place where we’re able to have conversations about harm. You have shareholder action against Apple.
Do you know the guys who are doing the shareholder action against Apple?

Not personally, no.
I reached out to them because I thought it was epic. I started three funds that were kind of first of their type. I thought this was the single best piece of fund marketing that I’ve ever witnessed. And, I’ve done some pretty clever fund marketing in my day. These guys just completely waxed me. It was the coolest thing I ever saw. I sought them out because it was so fucking genius. Going after Apple is brilliant because with Apple they got somebody who’s already going to do everything they want so they get to take credit. Everything Apple does, they get to take credit for from now on. Apple’s gonna do it because that’s their culture. Facebook’s not going to do anything.

Well, then they don’t have to, because Mark Zuckerberg holds all the cards.
Well, until the business melts down. Let’s watch usage, pal. Okay? Let’s watch usage in North America and Europe. I mean this is a completely unnecessary self-inflicted crisis.

How does the burgeoning group of — you might call them tech dissidents and activists, and politicians who care about this, do anything?
This is why I have to cry myself to sleep at night. You think I’m being funny? I mean, if you care about democracy, the only thing that could be done between now and the election requires the support of Facebook. And we’re not getting that.

How do you think that changes? Is it just sustained public outrage?
For three months, starting in October 2016, I appealed to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg directly. I did it really politely. I didn’t talk to anybody outside Facebook. I did it as a friend of the firm. I said, “Guys, I think this election manipulation has all the makings of a crisis, and I think you need to get on top of it. You need to do forensics and you need to determine what if any role you played. You need to make really substantive changes to your business model and your algorithms so the people know it’s not going to happen again. If you don’t do that, and it turns out you’ve had a large impact on the election, your brand is hosed.”

The problem with this whole thing is that it can only be fixed from within on a time frame of, say, less than five to ten years. If you can’t convince Mark and Sheryl, then you have to convince the employees. Historically there have been two ways that you made changes in employees. One approach, which has never been tested in the tech world, is what I would characterize as the Ellsberg Strategy: Somebody says, “Oh my God, something horrible is going on here,” and that external pressure forces a change. That’s the only way you have a snowball’s chance in hell of triggering what would actually be required to fix things and make it work.

The second option is the Susan Fowler model, which I think has been done as recently as a year ago incredibly effectively. Somebody within the employee base decides that this is a crisis and takes the lead on informing everybody else.

We’re trying to figure out a legal strategy for the folks who come out of Facebook and other companies who want to talk about stuff. Do you know how the nondisclosure agreements work? You understand that they can be pierced by a criminal situation? I mean not criminal in the sense of gangster. Criminal in the sense of aiding and abetting a foreign country and interfering in our election system, right?

What would you say are the most sort of critical things that need to happen if there’s going to be real change on this?
So Tristan’s view from the beginning was that it begins with public health. Which is to say the filter bubbles and brain hacking. You’ve got this notion of the filter bubble as a core issue in that you can create this situation where people believe that everyone agrees with them. When they’re in that mode, right, where everyone has their own information, their own facts, right? Their own worldview, it’s really hard at that point for any nonconfirming evidence to get through even if it’s manifestly true. I mean it’s a really brutal situation.

If you think about that as a public health problem there’s a couple aspects to it. One is that when they’re in that outrage cycle they really are easily manipulated. You saw this with all of the unwitting people who supported the Russians. They get those people in these groups and once they’re in that, they’re relatively easy to manipulate.

The second problem is the issue with kids, right? Where screen time is affecting child development in a lot of different ways. Kids who are under 8, the issue is that you’re basically giving them this dopamine addiction that makes it very hard for the real world to be thrilling enough so their attention span gets shorter. Importantly, for the really, little ones, if they’re 2 years old they’re supposed to be running around learning the world, right, by breaking stuff. You put them in front of a screen for a couple of hours and you’re arresting that whole cycle.

Then when they become older, body-shaming kicks in. Fear of missing out kicks in during the teenage years. You’ve basically got an entire generation of lonely, depressed kids who are being bullied online by tools that are really powerful. Then when you get to adults, the bullying becomes really intense. You wind up having these situations where bad guys are able to use trolls, bots, and groups to essentially have the power of more than one voice per person. People are constantly being harassed on these things, right? I mean go into a group and post a comment that the group doesn’t agree with and watch what happens.

It’s really fucked-up. I look at that and I just go, that public health thing, which is where Tristan and I started, that’s the core of the whole thing. If once you accept that there is a public health problem then you ask the question, “Well, what are some of the ways that manifests itself?” One way it manifests itself is  election interference.

Second place is the death of the entrepreneurial economy and the destruction of a lot of real businesses based on monopoly power of these monster platforms. The peak year for start-ups was 1997.

Small-business creation is at a 40-year low.
Right. That’s right. It’s had a bunch of parabolic declines but one of them is the one that’s gone on for the last seven or eight years. They’re other factors, right? Big-box retail’s a huge factor.

Anyway, if you look at those things, there are people who care about public health. There are people who really care about the elections stuff. There are people who care about competitiveness and new business formation. There’re different solutions in all three areas. And different offenders, right?

On the kids thing, for example, it’s Snapchat. It’s Instagram. It’s YouTube Kids, and it’s Messenger for Kids. I can’t think of one good reason for that product to exist. I mean, it’s essentially toxic. I mean, for really little kids, why do you want to give them messaging? What is that all about?

I wanted to ask if you had anything else that you wanted to say that was particularly important that you were about to touch on.
I think one vector is to focus on personal privacy and data ownership. In Europe, GDPR is a really good step in that direction. If you read the thing I wrote in the Washington Monthly, I have a few things that are non-GDPR-related about that. Essentially this notion that these guys give you a free service and then own your data forever without any transparency, that I think needs to be thought through. I do not understand that notion. The second thing I’ll tell you to focus on is that I think there needs to be a law against bots and trolls impersonating other people. Really focus on bots. Bots impersonating humans should not be allowed. There has to be really clear marking when you’re dealing with a bot. We spent a lot of time looking at this and can’t think of a case, and we’ve tried really hard, where that doesn’t feel acceptable, right? I’m not saying, “No bots.” I’m just saying, “Bots have to be really clearly marked.”

I think that there is a really important set of rules relative to protecting children. There have to be strict age limits to protect children. There’s got to be content protection. There has to be genuine liability on platforms when their algorithms fail. If Google can’t block the obviously phony story that the kids in Parkland were actors, they need to be held accountable.

There’s just no fucking excuse for that. That’s all there because it’s good for their business model. I’m sorry, but that’s not a good enough excuse. There’s a million other things, Noah. We could talk about this until we’re blue in the face some other time when you have time.

What’s really interesting is that none of those issues is inherently a partisan issue. There should be, even if you like the outcome in 2016 you’re going to hate the outcome in 2018 and 2020 because everybody and their grandmother is going to be doing the Russian playbook. They’re all going to do it under the false name of Igor so it gets blamed on the Russians. So there are Republicans who are very concerned about that now.

On the public health thing, there’s people all over the place who are worried about that. I mean Tristan and I have both been on with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Tucker, who honest to God I don’t think he agrees with me on anything politically; he’s completely aligned with us on this issue.

When we’re looking at stuff like the issues of corporate opportunity and entrepreneurship, I mean there’re people all over the Senate side of the Judiciary committee, the Republican side of the Senate Judiciary committee, who are deeply concerned about what’s going on and the harm being done. I look at this and all those things give me hope. I mean, I’m terrified about the election stuff. I’m terrified because without the help of the platforms, especially Facebook, it’s going to be really hard to prevent this stuff. The thing I’m telling everybody is if you want to prevent election interference in 2018 and 2020 the best thing we can do is set records for turnout. If everybody votes, we will dilute the interference dramatically, because the goal of it is to activate one side and then suppress the vote everywhere else. You really want to activate the minority and suppress the majority. If everybody votes that gets neutralized.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

A Conversation with Roger McNamee, Early Facebook Investor