SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Facebook announced changes to its news feed algorithm this week, which it says will prioritize, quote, "high-quality news sources." Until recently, Facebook paid NPR to produce videos for that site. But some might say the changes aren't enough to stem the misinformation and sensationalism on social media. A former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg and an early investor in Facebook has become one of those social platform's sharpest critics. In a series of opinion pieces for The Washington Post, The Guardian and Washington Monthly, Roger McNamee says Facebook has, quote, "behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. They have consciously combined persuasive techniques developed by propagandists in the gambling industry with technology in ways that threaten public health and democracy." Roger McNamee joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROGER MCNAMEE: It is entirely my pleasure.
SIMON: Well, these are important allegations. Let's take them one by one. How has Facebook threatened public health?
MCNAMEE: We are all addicted one way or another to smartphones. Sixty-two percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, and they get it under circumstances that are significantly less than optimal for our democracy. Facebook is a product that depends on advertising for its revenue, and the best way to get people engaged and to be interested in ads is to get them - ideally to make them either afraid or angry. And when you combine that adage with Facebook's ability to customize its content into two billion separate channels, effectively, everyone has their own "Truman Show."
On top of that, they have a smartphone, which is available every waking moment, and most people are conditioned to check it within a few minutes of waking up and will use it all day long, finishing only a few minutes before they go to sleep. If you can addict your user, they are a lot more valuable.
SIMON: Now, you say very bluntly in these articles that you believe Russia used Facebook to interfere in the 2016 elections. How?
MCNAMEE: So the most important thing to recognize is that Russia's interference was not a hack. They did not mess with Facebook. What they did was they took advantage of the tools that Facebook has created for legitimate advertisers and applied them to manipulating the thoughts of American voters, essentially promoting polarizing issues. So they focused on things like immigration, guns, white supremacy and a variety of other issues they knew to be polarizing. And their explicit goal was to make Americans angry at other Americans.
SIMON: You tried to bring your concerns to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, whom you know very well. I think it'd be fair to say they didn't seem as troubled as you were.
MCNAMEE: When I went to them, their reaction was to say, Roger, we really appreciate your coming to us with this. Our view is that these are all isolated examples of things that we can and have fixed. And more importantly, we are actually not responsible for what third parties do because legally we're classified as a platform, not a media company, so we're not, in fact, responsible. And after four months of them being incredibly polite, incredibly friendly but not moving at all, I finally gave up, and that's when I went public.
SIMON: In many ways, though, hasn't the success of Facebook suggested that the world public prefers convenience to all these questions you raise about interference, invasion of privacy?
MCNAMEE: I think that is indisputably true. The problem that we face I think as a country - in fact, that the world faces - is that we adopted these products to the point where more than 2 billion people use them regularly. We adopted them without really fully understanding that there was a dark side. So in a sense, it's a lot like what happened after the Second World War when an industry was created to make food convenient. And no one understood at the time that the process of making food convenient meant loading it up with fat, sugar and salt and that that would pose, in time, a public health risk. We have gone through that cycle much more rapidly with technology, but we've arrived at the same place.
SIMON: What should Facebook do?
MCNAMEE: I think the most important thing they can do for democracy is to contact every single Facebook user who was touched by the Russian interference in 2016. They need to send them messages - emails, texts, Facebook messages - that say we are really sorry, but we were manipulated by the Russians in 2016. They took advantage of our product to harm American democracy. And because we were manipulated, you as a user was manipulated.
And as a country, I think we need to come together and recognize that while you may have liked the outcome in 2016, you're probably not going to like the outcome next time because what the Russians have done is create a playbook that anyone can use. And I don't think we want our democracy to be about bullies beating up on everybody else. And that's what happened in 2016, and that's what I fear will happen this year and in future elections. And so Facebook owes an obligation to the country to correct that. They're the only one who has the data, and they're the only one who's really believable with the message that people were manipulated.
SIMON: Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners - and he was an early investor in Facebook - thanks so much for being with us.
MCNAMEE: My pleasure. It's been really fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.