Ex-execs dissing Facebook: all the rage. But who’s bringing about true change?

Earlier this month, the latest ‘responsible tech’ bombshell dropped: Chris Hughes (left above), who co-founded Facebook back in the day with Mark Zuckerberg, affirmed in a New York Times op-ed “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook“. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, claims Hughes, “Zuck” and Sheryl Sandberg have done nothing to reign in Facebook’s huge potential for political harm. “Mark is a good, kind person”, writes Hughes. “But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks.” As such, Hughes recommends separating WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook — companies whose messaging services Zuck plans to merge — to moderate a level of power and influence that he calls “staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.”

Which is all well and good. But as this excellent Columbia Journalism Review article reminds us, Hughes’ stance is essentially “I Regret my role at Facebook, but I’m keeping the money.” Yes, as the piece puts it, Hughes and his husband have invested “in economic justice issues and other efforts aimed at “trying to use this money to make the world a more just place.” But Hughes doesn’t appear to have invested in anything that is aimed directly at countering Facebook’s influence.”

Other former top Facebook execs talking the talk but not walking the walk are:

  • Sean Parker, who became one of the first high-profile whistleblowers when, in 2017, he famously wondered out loud what Facebook is “doing to our children’s minds”. He has concretely done nothing to stop that nefarious effect, ‘only’ investing some of his Facebook billions in a civic engagement startup which is now said to be up for sale
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, who was also one of the first top ex-Facebook senior managers to bash his former employer, claiming in 2017 that it was eroding the foundations of society. Then he got a call from Sheryl Sandberg, and quickly changed his tune, saying he believes Facebook is “a force for good in the world”. 

Contrastingly, right now, the only two ex-big tech bigwigs who seem to be taking concrete steps to slow Facebook’s irresponsible growth are VC Roger McNamee (right above), an early investor in the company after having been one of its first senior advisors; and Tristan Harris (centre above), founder of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) and former Google exec.

Whilst Harris should be well known to readers of this blog, if anything because he’s one of the main reasons I started it — his initial movement, Time Well Spent, was so influential that Zuckerberg cited the term twice when announcing major, people-centric overhauls to Facebook’s algorithms early 2018 — McNamee, less so. Yet right now, he’s currently making way more concrete sense than Harris.

After kickstarting the responsible tech movement almost singlehandedly, Harris went into a sort of contemplative hibernation, to brainstorm and conceptualise the next steps for his movement. He was helped on this journey by McNamee, who is now a key co-founder of the CHT. Mid-April, he emerged from his deep think, to present the centre’s new mission in this presentation:

“To reverse human downgrading by inspiring a new race to the top and realigning technology with humanity”

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So what does that mean? Well, Harris gave plenty of examples of the type of problems to be fixed. The fact, for example, that YouTube recommendations give a 90% likelihood of showing a film about flat earth theory if you search for “astronomy”, versus 20% for Google Search. Indeed, that very problem, and many others, has already been addressed and resolved by Google & co, further to the CHT’s intervention. But what about bigger picture, long term solutions? Those were somewhat more thin on the ground.

Capture d’écran 2019-05-02 à 00.36.27.png

For Harris, we need to shift to regenerative incentives – rather than those that get us hooked in the “infinite feedback loop” decried by Parker – and humane AI and social systems. The latter means that ‘humane’ social networks could leverage our network of friends when we need a morale boost, for example:

Capture d’écran 2019-05-02 à 00.29.15

But apart from that? 🤷🏻‍♂️ Not much. Consequently, Harris’ long-awaited mission-unveiling speech hardly set the internets alight in terms of views, and bizarrely ended with a group meditation session. Great for wellbeing and such; not so great in terms of concrete actions.

Zucked: Waking up to the Faceboook catastrophe“, McNamee’s book about how he went from leading Facebook supporter to convincing Zuck-basher, sees the VC trump his CHT colleague on several fronts. Albeit unstructured, it clearly outlines McNamee’s game-changing actions, both individually and with Harris. Namely:

  • Shifting to consider gadgets as “bicycles for the mind”: this was how Steve Jobs described computers, “a tool that creates value through exercise as well as fun. Jobs thought computers should make humans more capable, not displace or exploit them.” Whence the CHT’s very notion of “humane tech”.
  • Fight the “misconception that regulation does not work with technology”, notably because lawmakers can never keep up with it. “The source of this misconception is a very effective lobbying campaign, led by Google, with an assist from Facebook,” writes McNamee
  • Start lobbying yourself, beginning with New York’s attorney general. “The AG’s office had the skills and experience to handle the most complex cases”, writes McNamee. “In time, we (CHT) would furnish them with whistle-blowers, as well as insights. By April 2018, 37 state AGs had begun investigations of Facebook.” Boom!
  • Help lawmakers along the way: McNamee consults with Congress member Zoe Lofgren, an initial supporter of Facebook and co during their “honeymoon period”. Now, she wants to bring about GDPR-style privacy-protecting reforms in the US which states that users should be able to withdraw their personal data whenever they want. No doubt the CHT will help her with that…
  • Shine light where others haven’t: well before and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook employed Joseph Chancellor, who had been a partner in the startup run by ‘researcher’ Aleksandr Kogan, who had, writes McNamee, “harvested Facebook user profiles on behalf of Cambridge Analytica.” And it gets worse: McNamee claims, based on this assertion, that (other) Facebook employees like Chancellor “worked with Cambridge Analytica inside the Trump campaign only months after the data-misappropriation scandal first broke in December 2015.” This is clearly the smoking gun, for McNamee: if he could prove it in a court of law, it could mean the end of Facebook…
  • Raise antitrust awareness: as US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has already pointed out, antitrust rules state that the owner of a market cannot also participate in a market. That’s exactly what Google did, says McNamee, by acquiring DoubleClick, thereby enabling it to “favour its own properties at the expense of third parties”. Similarly, Facebook should not own both its platform and its users’ data and content. And yet, it does. McNamee also repeatedly uses the example of US telco AT&T, split up under antitrust laws in the 80s, with beneficial results for absolutely everyone. Why can’t this apply to Facebook?
  • Remind us that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t the end: data brokers are not illegal. And they are so powerful, they can build an advertisers’ profile of your kids just from one birthday post on Instagram. As such, still today, McNamee reminds us, political campaigns “can buy a list of 200 million voting-age Americans with 1500 data points per person from a legitimate data broker for $75,000.” And no doubt such data has just been used in the European elections, too…

So there you have it. The most effective anti-Facebook campaigner right now is a hippy capitalist who runs a Grateful Dead-style psychedelic rock band (Moon Alice), as well as one of Silicon Valley’s most reputable VC companies, Elevation, in which Bono is also a partner. The fact he also consults for HBO’s genial satire Silicon Valley somewhat makes up for this dubious connection, so we’ll let him off for now. The fact is, he’s one of the best hopes of the responsible tech movement today, and he’s right inside the system… with just enough distance to see its shortcomings, and do something about them.

And if he’s not enough, he’s not alone. Another great way to work against Facebook today is simply to not go and work for it. According to a CNBC report, “among top schools, Facebook’s acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates has fallen from an average of 85% for the 2017-2018 school year to between 35% and 55% as of December.”

Say no more. For now…
Chris Hughes photo via Business Insider

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