Last week Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fix Facebook in 2018. However, it is unlikely any of the changes Zuckerberg alluded to will satisfy his former mentor and Facebook early investor, Roger McNamee, who is calling for sweeping changes to the social media giant.
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In a critique of Facebook and Google for the Washington Monthly, McNamee argues the problems surrounding political influence and civil unrest run much deeper than a lack of human oversight.
“The problems [are] inherent in the attention-based, algorithm-driven business model,” McNamee wrote.
“Algorithms can be beautiful in mathematical terms, but they are only as good as the people who create them. In the case of Facebook and Google, the algorithms have flaws that are increasingly obvious and dangerous.”
Negative and divisive content that reaffirms user’s existing views and prompts more reactions, are being favoured by Facebook algorithms, McNamee said. It means sensational content continues to crop up as people “self-segregate into like-minded filter bubbles.”
The race for user attention — powered by the newsfeed algorithm — has become a race to the bottom, exasperated by trolls and bots, according to McNamee.
While it translates to more revenue from advertisers and record profits for Facebook, it comes at a significant social cost.
“It reads like the plot of a sci-fi novel: a technology celebrated for bringing people together is exploited by a hostile power to drive people apart, undermine democracy, and create misery.”
The Good Old Days
McNamee became Zuckerberg’s mentor after talking the founder out of selling Facebook to Yahoo in 2006. Given the opportunity to become a board member, McNamee instead chose to invest in the company and provide advice from the sidelines.
However, he did not take a back seat and counts those early years, and his contributions, as his “proudest accomplishment”.
The mentorship ended before Facebook went public and in February 2016 McNamee became suspicious the social media platform was being used for nefarious purposes.
The problematic algorithms and their exploitation has influenced geopolitical issues like Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election campaign, McNamee said. It has put political discourse “in the gutter” and it is time Facebook faced up.
(Really) Fixing Facebook
The magnitude of the problem and Facebook and Google’s entrenched position means improving the situation requires a “multi-pronged approach”.
The first step is reducing what McNamee calls “filter bubbles” – a social media-enabled resistance to the truth despite evidence.
“I recommend that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others be required to contact each person touched by Russian content with a personal message that says, ‘You, and we, were manipulated by the Russians. This really happened, and here is the evidence.’”
Next is to haul the CEOs of tech giants before a congressional committee to explain their actions. A step which would hurt their deity status amongst their employees, McNamee said.
“Forcing tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg to justify the unjustifiable, in public—without the shield of spokespeople or PR spin—would go a long way to puncturing their carefully preserved cults of personality in the eyes of their employees.”
It is “essential” that the bots impersonating humans online be banned, according to McNamee. Their effect is unprecedented and at a minimum they should be labeled and their liability be transferred to to platform vendors.
In a bid to increase competition, McNamee recommends platforms not be allowed to make any further acquisitions until they repair the damage they have done and can prove any such acquisitions would not diminish competition. Such a step would help shift the internet back towards its early decentralised state.
Tech companies must also lift their game on transparency, McNamee said. Transparency in political and issue based communication “is a step toward rebuilding trust in our political institutions”.
The transparency issue also applies to algorithms and third parties should be allowed to audit company algorithms, McNamee said. “If Facebook and Google had to be up-front about the reason you’re seeing conspiracy theories—namely, that it’s good for business—they would be far less likely to stick to that tactic.”
McNamee also called for the “forking” of platforms, where users can stick with older software versions and still maintain platform access. Currently failure to agree to new end user licence agreements means access is revoked.
He also recommended tighter controls on how Facebook can use consumer data it collects.
“Not only do the platforms use your data on their own sites, but they also lease it to third parties to use all over the internet. And they will use that data forever, unless someone tells them to stop,” McNamee said.
For that reason he recommends an opt out option and a statute of limitations on the use of consumer data.
He also argues that consumers should own their data and be free to migrate it to other platforms and social networks — a prospect which would encourage innovation and competition.
Finally, McNamee said, “The time has come to revive the country’s traditional approach to monopoly.” Facebook and Google’s status as a monopoly is rarely challenged under the guise that it does not produce higher costs for consumers. McNamee argues there are indeed costs, even if we don’t see them on a price tag.
“Addiction to Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms has a cost. Election manipulation has a cost. Reduced innovation and shrinkage of the entrepreneurial economy has a cost. All of these costs are evident today,” he said.