If you were thinking of quitting social media, the upcoming Frontline film The Facebook Dilemma on PBS might just push you over the edge, judging by the ominous insights shared at a panel this afternoon at TCA summer press tour.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and venture capitalist, recalled reaching out to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in October 2016. He had seen indications of misuse of the platform and wanted to offer his counsel. (He was right, of course. Data-miners, including the infamous, now-shuttered Cambridge Analytica, were hard at work harnessing ill-gotten personal information to make political messages more effective.) The indifferent reaction McNamee says he received shocked him and galvanized his criticism of the company’s stance. The executives viewed the malevolent use of the platform as a “public relations problem, not a business problem,” McNamee charged. 

Mark Zuckerberg
(Photo by Shawn Thew/Shutterstock)
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“I thought that Facebook was being manipulated by bad actors and that the people running the company were the victims,” he went on. “What I’ve discovered since then is that the culture of the company took them to a place where they had a very fixed goal, which is to connect the world and to build the most valuable network in the history of humanity. And they convinced themselves that virtually everything was OK if it got them closer to that goal.” Management remained “willfully blind to what was going on in 2016, the investor added.

McNamee was joined on the panel by Washington Post reporter and Frontline correspondent Dana Priest, Dilemma producer James Jacoby and Frontline series producer Raney Aronson-Rath. The film is scheduled to premiere on PBS in the fall.

Facebook has spent 2018 under heavy scrutiny. Just this morning, in fact, its execs held a press briefing to share details about their removal of 32 Facebook and Instagram account. The accounts engaged in coordinated efforts to mislead and manipulate people. The company is unable to tie these accounts to Russia, though the New York Times reports that Facebook officials have privately confided to lawmakers that Russia was probably involved.

In addition to the Cambridge Analytica mess and the notion that Facebook is profiting by driving wedges in between people, there has been mounting unrest over the ways that the company polices content. Lax oversight, critics maintain, has enabled hate groups to flourish and tilted the 2016 presidential race toward Donald Trump, especially in key battleground states.

Adoring early press attention to the story of Zuckerberg launching a global revolution from his Harvard dorm room made the company complacent, the filmmakers said. “They basically needed a Paranoia Department,” Jacoby said. “An independent, outside research team should have been given control to think through all of the problems or downsides of creating what is a pretty marvelous piece of technology. But they really didn’t do that.”

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The long-term push-and-pull in terms of whether platforms like Facebook should be regulated as media companies are has yet to yield coherent policy in Washington, panelists noted.

“Facebook makes editorial decisions in a billionth of a second,” McNamee said, presenting items in your news feed that provoke rage — and, failing that, elicit a smile. “Happiness is not viral because mostly resent other peoples’ happiness,” he added, citing the Brexit vote in 2015 as a notable example.

Tech innovation between 1950 and 2000, McNamee said, unfolded in an era of “Tech Optimism” when “technology had no downsides” and there was a “huge premium on experimenting.” Further complicating things, he added, is the shift in Silicon Valley from the “hippie” progressive ethos of its earliest days in the 1970s and 1980s toward a more pervasive libertarian attitude that views company’s as passive third parties. If society has conflict on Facebook, according to that thinking, people should work it out, not necessarily Facebook.

“Tech Optimism no longer rational – it’s dangerous,” McNamee said. “People look at Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and they say, ‘Hey, this is great for me.’ And they’re right. … But you wind up creating this environment that pushes power toward the loudest, angriest voices out there.”

Priest, a career intelligence reporter, said Facebook’s clout is bigger than any of the organizations she has covered on the global stage. “It’s an organization that is more powerful than any intelligence agency in the world and yet it has none of the regulations and limits those agencies have,” she said. “It’s allowing them to know more about you than you know about yourself.”