As the public digests the ugly details about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, learning how the research firm mined and sold data on 50 million Facebook users, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the platform and its leadership.
But years ago, McNamee, managing director and co-founder of the private equity firm Elevation Partners, was something else to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: The rare mentor who offered invaluable counsel, even when he had nothing to gain from it.
In 2006, before he invested in the firm, McNamee advised Zuckerberg to resist pressure to sell to Yahoo, describing where Facebook’s greatest potential was waiting (with adults at large, not students). Later he urged Zuckerberg to hire Sheryl Sandberg.
More recently, the self-proclaimed “hippie” has called on Facebook to examine and change its morally questionable business practices that have made the platform a tool for dark forces in the world.
But it seems Zuckerberg and Sandberg have blown him off. In 2016, after responding once to an email from him, they ignored him for three months as he pushed for some additional engagement, he told NPR’s Morning Edition show today. After six more months of his own analysis of the company, he began to take his campaign public, joining likeminded former believers.
But for him, the political issue also is personal.
“I’m immensely disappointed, both in Mark and in Sheryl Sandberg,” McNamee told Morning Edition.
“We’re talking about democracy, not just in the United States, but around the world. And we’re talking about treating users like human beings, as opposed to like the fuel for a business that generates profits. And in my mind, this is a character test, and they’re having a really hard time with it.”
We’ve reached out to Facebook for a response.
“It’s hard to be a CEO”
McNamee and Zuckerberg’s relationship began in 2006, when Chris Kelly, then Facebook’s chief privacy officer, contacted the investor, already a sought-after, if eccentric “guru” in the tech industry. The 22-year-old Zuckerberg was “facing a difficult decision” and in need of objective advice, as McNamee tells it in a recent, lengthy essay on fixing Facebook in Washington Monthly.
He says of that first encounter:
“I began by letting Mark know the perspective I was coming from. Soon, I predicted, he would get a billion-dollar offer to buy Facebook from either Microsoft or Yahoo, and everyone, from the company’s board to the executive staff to Mark’s parents, would advise him to take it. I told Mark that he should turn down any acquisition offer. He had an opportunity to create a uniquely great company if he remained true to his vision…I told Mark the market was much bigger than just young people; the real value would come when busy adults, parents and grandparents, joined the network and used it to keep in touch with people they didn’t get to see often.”
Then Zuckerberg admitted that Yahoo had already made that billion-dollar offer. McNamee advised him not to sell, and stayed in close contact with Zuckerberg, developing a friendship and mentor-mentee connection. His success with Facebook in those years has been his “greatest achievement,” he writes.
To be sure, McNamee was not the only wise elder Zuckerberg turned to for advice—Don Graham of the Washington Post was another—and Zuckerberg was not the only tech CEOs to seek McNamee’s counsel (Bill Gates name-checks him in the acknowledgements for his first book).
Still, other accounts of their relationship suggest that McNamee was almost a father figure to the young, flip-flops-clad CEO. Ten years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a conversation between the two. According to McNamee’s telling, Zuckerberg asked, “Is being a CEO always this hard?”
Zuckerberg couldn’t remember that exchange, he told the Journal, but he acknowledged in the interview that the CEO job “is hard—I do sometimes whine to Roger about it.”
McNamee had a reputation for eliciting such frankness. He was simply liked, other investors told USA Today in 2005. McNamee, also a musician who has played in various folk-rock bands, seemed to know everyone and always knew what was going on. Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape and another high-profile venture capitalist, told USA Today that McNamee would “corner people in hallways at conferences” and get them to talk.
“He had these huge windshield-size glasses, and he’d push right up against you, in your face, and talk at you extremely urgently for like five minutes, get you nodding yes and pressing yourself further and further back into the wall, his face like 2 inches away from yours.
“You’d be looking into those huge square glasses, and then all at once he’d just stop and stare at you and let the silence hang, and if you weren’t extremely careful, it was at that point where you’d just spill your guts and tell him everything he wanted to know.”
The mentor sounds an alarm
McNamee was no longer Zuckerberg’s mentor by the time the company went public five years ago. He continued to watch Facebook’s growth, however, and was one of its billions of users, even tapping the platform to market his band Moonalice. (Their cult favorite hit is “It’s 4:20 Somewhere.”)
In his Washington Monthly piece, McNamee says that his understanding of how to engage with Facebook users as an advertiser himself allowed him to form a theory about what was happening when, during the Democratic primaries before the 2016 US election, Facebook newsfeeds were flooded with anti-Hillary Clinton memes. He saw a similar phenomenon before the Brexit vote when fear-mongering anti-EU messages dominated the social media site.
Just after that vote, McNamee wrote an op-ed for Recode, warning that Facebook was being manipulated by “bad actors.” The problem seemed to be systemic—the algorithms themselves made the site vulnerable because they were coded to prioritize attention, and attention is best gained by messages that elicit fear, outrage, and hate-sharing. He told Morning Edition that he first sent a draft of the op-ed to Zuckerberg and Sandberg as a courtesy and that Zuckerberg politely wrote back. McNamee decided not to run the piece attacking his former mentee.
McNamee explains in Washington Monthly:
Mark and Sheryl were my friends, and my goal was to make them aware of the problems so they could fix them. I certainly wasn’t trying to take down a company in which I still hold equity. I sent them the op-ed on October 30. They each responded the next day. The gist of their messages was the same: We appreciate you reaching out; we think you’re misinterpreting the news; we’re doing great things that you can’t see. Then they connected me to Dan Rose, a longtime Facebook executive with whom I had an excellent relationship. Dan is a great listener and a patient man, but he was unwilling to accept that there might be a systemic issue. Instead, he asserted that Facebook was not a media company, and therefore was not responsible for the actions of third parties.
Eventually, McNamee joined a group of tech-savvy Cassandras who have made regulators and the media aware of the deep flaws in Facebook’s system, flaws the company has seemingly ignored.
Today, McNamee tells Quartz that he didn’t expect Zuckerberg to “just accept” the warning message he sounded in the weeks leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. Says McNamee:
“We hadn’t spoken in a number of years at that point, but we had traded emails and it was always positive. But when I saw what was going on in 2016, I was genuinely concerned. I just assumed that he would have trouble accepting it, because they hadn’t had anything negative in three or four years. It must have been really hard for him to appreciate that everything wasn’t perfect. But I kind of hoped that if I talked to Dan Rose over a period of weeks or months, they would have eventually follow through. The shock would pass and they would think ‘Roger is actually really serious about this, maybe we should just check it out.’ But after three months, I realized they were never going to check it out.”
By now, we’ve all come to better understand why and how Facebook can be a powerful tool for meddling in democratic processes. Russia’s interference in the US election, McNamee wrote in his Washington Monthly piece, “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. ”
This article has been updated with comments from a new interview with Roger McNamee.