I bet on Zuckerberg—and helped write the Soros speech that earned Facebook’s ire
When a company grows from nothing to 2.2 billion active users and $40 billion in revenues in only 14 years, you can be sure of three things: First, the original idea was brilliant. Second, execution of the business plan had to be nearly flawless. And third, at some point along the way, the people who manage the company will lose perspective. If everything your company touches turns into gold for years on end, your executives will start to believe the good things people say about them. They will view their mission as exalted. They will reject criticism. They will ask, “If the critics are so smart, why aren’t they as successful and rich as we are?”
Companies far less successful than Facebook have fallen victim to such overconfidence. The culture of Silicon Valley, which celebrates the brash and the bold, breeds overconfidence and then lets nature take its course. The corpses of overconfident companies litter the landscape of the tech industry. Companies like Digital Equipment, Compaq, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and MySpace were hot growth stories in their prime. Then there are the survivors who had lost prestige as their growth slowed down, companies like Intel, EMC, Dell, and Yahoo. The executives of these companies confidently predicted strong growth right up to the moment when there was none and the stock—and their dreams of endless growth—came tumbling down. Then there are companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM, at one time undisputed leaders but whose giant market capitalization masks a dramatic loss in influence.
It took me a very long time to accept that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had fallen victim to overconfidence. As an early advisor to Zuck and an early investor in Facebook, I did not pick up the signal when I first reached out to them in October 2016. It was not even clear to me in February 2017, when I gave up on trying to convince Dan Rose, the company’s vice president of partnerships, to investigate my concerns. The evidence started to pile up in the month prior to the Congressional hearings on October 31 and November 1, 2017, but I still wanted to believe that Zuck and Sheryl would eventually change their approach.
The clincher was the episode with Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive who told an audience at Stanford in December 2017 that he regretted that social media was “ripping apart society.” Before Chamath, Facebook could have said, “We didn’t cause the Russian interference, but it happened to our users and we will do everything in our power to protect them.” Facebook could have followed the crisis management playbook, cooperated fully and enthusiastically with investigators and reached out to users who were touched by the Russian interference with an explanation and evidence.
A lot of time had passed, but I am pretty sure that everyone who mattered—users, advertisers, the government, Facebook employees—would have reacted favorably. There might have been a hit to earnings and the stock price in the short term, but before long Facebook would have enjoyed the benefits of greater trust from its constituents, which would have taken the stock to new highs.
Instead, Facebook finished 2017 as it had begun it, by not giving an inch, thus violating a central precept of crisis management: embracing criticism. Instead, Facebook defied its critics without even acknowledging their existence. The company’s message to the world— “nothing to see here, move along”—was so completely out of step with what we already knew that I was taken aback. What were they thinking?
The idealist in me still hoped there would be a way to persuade Zuck and Sheryl to look at the situation differently, to recognize that the 2018 US midterm elections were fast approaching and only Facebook had the ability to protect that election from mischief similar to 2016.
Back in early October 2017, Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute had convinced me to write a long-form essay describing the dark side of social media, our journey to date, and our best policy ideas. He then persuaded the editors of Washington Monthly, a venerable magazine for progressive policy advocates, to commission a 6,000-word essay. My goal was to crystallize the issues and our policy recommendations for policy makers inside the Beltway, an intellectual one-stop-shop that would frame the debate and create a platform for the next phase of our work. I submitted the first draft in late October.
I would get a master class in the Socratic method from the piece’s editors, Paul Glastris and Gilad Edelman, who provided a series of brilliant questions, the answers to which filled in many holes. We showed the policy prescriptions to a number of others on Capitol Hill to get their feedback. The editing and reviewing went on through the month of November until one day Gilad told me we were done. The essay would be the cover story of the January 2018 issue, slated for publication on January 8. It went beyond election interference to talk about the threats from internet platforms to public health, privacy, and the economy.
On January 1, 2018, Zuck published a post announcing his goal for the year ahead. It had become a tradition for Facebook’s CEO to begin each year by giving himself a challenge. One year he learned to speak Mandarin. Another year he only ate meat he had killed himself. I have no idea why Zuck makes these challenges public.
Zuck’s goal for 2018 was to fix Facebook. He offered a nine-point plan. Wait. What? Fix Facebook? Where did that come from? No one at the company had previously admitted to problems that might require fixing. Suddenly Zuck acknowledged concerns about fake news and the possibility that too much Facebook (or other social media) might lead to unhappiness. He offered a classic Zuck fix: more Facebook! Zuck’s plan for addressing the problems created by Facebook was for users to do more of the things that created the problems in the first place. People who had not realized there was anything broken at Facebook were caught off guard by Zuck’s post. What did it mean?
In response to Zuck’s post, Washington Monthly published my cover story online a few days early, on January 5. Even though I had completed the essay more than a month earlier, it read like a rebuttal to Zuck’s New Year’s resolution. Where Zuck’s post had framed Facebook’s flaws obliquely, my essay was direct and specific. Where his remedy was more Facebook, my essay recommended ten remedies, aimed at user privacy, ownership of data, terms of service, and election interference. The press picked up on it, and the next thing I knew, an essay designed for a handful of policy makers in Washington began spreading outside the Beltway.
We had managed to find a pretty good audience for our message in 2017, but we had made no progress with the only audience that mattered: the top people at Facebook. The company’s PR people had begun to say unflattering things in private but were ignoring us in public. And it was working for them. Then came Washington Monthly. The lucky timing of the essay would lead Facebook to engage directly.
On Sunday, January 7, I flew to New York City with my wife, Ann, for a six- week stay. The next morning, I received an email from Jamie Drummond, Bono’s partner on the ONE campaign, asking if he could introduce me to someone who represented George Soros, the billionaire investor who had dedicated his fortune to the promotion of democracy around the world. In my years in the investment business, there were a handful of people whose brilliance dazzled me, and George Soros was one. In an email, Soros’s colleague Michael Vachon explained that Soros had read my Washington Monthly essay and liked it so much he planned to use it as the frame for a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25. Would I be willing to meet with Mr. Soros to help him write the speech? I certainly would. We agreed to meet at the end of the week.
“Who the fuck is Roger McNamee?”
That same day, I called my friend Chris Kelly, the former chief privacy officer of Facebook, who had originally introduced me to Zuck. I wanted Chris’s take on everything that we had learned. Chris shared my view that the only people who could fix Facebook quickly were Zuck and Sheryl. There was no way to protect elections or innocent people from harm without some cooperation from Facebook. Inside the company, Zuck and Sheryl had the power. They had the moral authority to change direction.
Unfortunately, Zuck and Sheryl refused to engage with critics. There are two reasons why crisis management experts advise clients to reach out to critics: you learn the dimensions of the problem, and by cooperating with critics, you take the first step on the path to restoring trust. Facebook had ignored all critics until Chamath Palihapitiya spoke at Stanford. Facebook’s successful effort to get Chamath to recant his regrets and the resolution’s focus on “more Facebook” as the solution to whatever ailed users suggested Facebook did not plan to concede anything.
The day took a turn into the twilight zone when a friend shared a tweet posted by long-time Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth. It read, “I’ve worked at Facebook for 12 years and I have to ask: who the fuck is Roger McNamee?” It’s a question I have often asked myself in other contexts, but in this case it pointed to an inescapable conclusion: the Washington Monthly essay had found its way into Facebook headquarters. He wasn’t Zuck or Sheryl, but Boz was a member of the inner circle. We looked at the bright side. Getting on Boz’s radar seemed like progress. It certainly caught the eye of many journalists, which helped our cause.
One thing had not changed from when I first reached out to Zuck and Sheryl in 2016: Facebook was not open to criticism, much less taking it to heart. Ignore the messenger was their first instinct; if that failed, presumably they would bring in the heavy artillery.
Later that day, Tim Berners-Lee tweeted the Washington Monthly essay to his followers. Berners-Lee is one of my heroes. His endorsement of the essay meant the world to me. Suddenly, the essay was everywhere, and requests came in from all sorts of media: CNBC, Tucker Carlson on Fox, CBS Morning News, NBC Nightly News, the Today show, MSNBC, Frontline, CNN, 60 Minutes, Bloomberg Technology, BBC Radio, and Bloomberg Radio. Network television enabled us to share our message with millions of people. But the highlight of the week came on Friday, when I went to Soros’s house in Bedford, New York, north of New York City.
George Soros was eighty-seven years old at the time and exceptionally full of life. I arrived as he was returning from a tennis match. George welcomed me to his home, introduced me to his wife, Tamiko, and begged my forbearance while he took a quick shower before our session. During the short wait, Tamiko quizzed me about the Washington Monthly article.
Soros’s speech was already great when I first saw it, but he is a perfectionist and thought that it could be much better. We spent more than four hours editing it line by line until George expressed satisfaction with the substance. When we got to the end, I assumed my job was done, but George asked if I could return the following day, which was Saturday. He wanted to review the speech again and then prepare for questions he might get from the press. No one was expecting George Soros to deliver a warning about the dangers of internet platform monopolies, and he wanted to be certain he understood the technical issues described in my essay well enough to answer questions from journalists. On Saturday morning, George, Tamiko, Michael Vachon, and I sat around the dining room table, reviewing every issue from multiple directions until George felt he could respond to whatever the reporters asked. It took more than three hours.
Soros’s commitment to democracy around the world had particular salience in January 2018, given the rise of Donald Trump and the growing strength of hypernationalists in Europe. After an opening that focused on geopolitics, Soros’s speech turned to the threat to democracy from internet monopolies like Google and Facebook.
Playing to his strengths, Soros framed the threat in economic terms. He characterized the internet monopolies as extraction businesses in the vein of oil companies, but with a better business model. Network effects allow for ever-higher returns as they grow. Growth requires more time and attention from every user every year, gained through surveillance of users and designs that create psychological addiction. Exceptional reach enables monopolies to act as gatekeepers. Media companies must work with them on their terms. Yet the internet monopolies do not acknowledge responsibility for the content on their site, which allows disinformation to flourish. Active users lose the ability to separate fact from fiction, making them vulnerable to manipulation.
Soros emphasized the potential threat to democracy of an alliance between authoritarians and internet monopolies. He warned that the monopolies are vulnerable both to China’s influence and to competition from Chinese companies playing their version of the same game. Soros concluded the speech with praise for the European Union’s approach to protecting users from internet monopolies. George may have started from my Washington Monthly essay, but the final speech went much further, tying the threat from internet platforms to geopolitics. By the time I left the Soros home, I had every hope that George’s speech would have an impact.
It did. The Soros speech at Davos on January 25 reverberated through the halls of government in both Europe and the United States, reframing the conversation from the relatively narrow confines of the US presidential election to the much broader space of global economics and politics. Policy makers take Soros very seriously, even the ones who disagree with him, and few expected the eight-seven-year old billionaire to speak so thoughtfully and forcefully about technology. For many, it was a wake-up call.
(As it turned out, the speech also hadn’t gone unnoticed by Facebook’s top leadership, whose response was revealing of the company’s overall approach to public relations: The New York Times later reported that Soros’s comments prompted Facebook to ask an opposition research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to spread negative stories linking prominent Facebook critics to Soros, who has become a bogeyman of the right and a dog whistle for anti-Semitism. Sheryl later apologized to Color of Change, the group targeted in the campaign.)
In the US, where policy makers’ enormous trust in tech platforms had already been tested by the congressional hearings three months earlier, Soros added pressure for a further reassessment. For users, the effect of Soros’s speech was more abstract. Most users really like Facebook. They really like Google. There is no other way to explain the huge number of daily users. Few had any awareness of a dark side, that Facebook and Google could be great for them but bad for society.
I don’t know how many users heard Soros’s speech—probably fewer than watched at least some of the congressional hearings back in October and November, which itself was not a big number—but many more saw the headlines. I suspect the details of Soros’s argument did not fully register, but coming so soon after the hearings, the headlines had to leave an impression: same companies, new problems. An increasing number of users registered an awareness of controversy surrounding Facebook and Google. More knew that the platforms had issues, even if they did not yet know the particulars or how they might be affected personally.
McNamee, a cofounder with U2’s Bono of Elevation Partners, has been a Silicon Valley investor for 35 years.
This essay was adapted from ZUCKED: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright 2019 by Roger McNamee.