The New Gatekeepers

I regret my role at Facebook, but I’m keeping the money

May 14, 2019

Journalists like to say that three examples of something makes a trend. In that case, there is definitely something happening around Facebook, as former staffers—and in some cases co-founders—renounce the company and its ill effects on society. The latest is Chris Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate, who helped design and market the service in its very early days, and later went on to run Barack Obama’s digital presence during the 2008 election, among other things. Hughes made headlines last week with a piece in The New York Times arguing that the company should be broken up.

The former Facebook executive made about $500 million when he sold his stake in Facebook in 2012, a windfall similar to that enjoyed by most early investors and by staffers who have since turned against the company. But while they seem happy to criticize it, and some have used their wealth to fund charitable causes along the way, few if any are using it to try to develop an alternative to Facebook or to fix what it has broken.

In his Times opinion piece, Hughes said he believes Facebook is a negative force in society and politics, that Zuckerberg has too much power over speech, and that the company should be split up by regulators. He also takes some responsibility for his own role in what Facebook has become: “I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders,” he writes.

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In an interview with Kara Swisher of Vox/Recode last week, Hughes says he feels some responsibility, and even “a sense of embarrassment,” for the negative impacts of what he helped to build. When Swisher asks whether he has ever thought about giving some of his money back, Hughes says he and his husband “have committed to giving away essentially all of it in our lifetimes.” (Hughes, who is 35 years old, presumably has some time). He adds that this is why they invest 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.

Before Hughes, the first prominent Facebook backer to publicly criticize the company was legendary Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee, who co-founded Elevation Partners with U2’s Bono and was an early investor and a mentor to the young Zuckerberg. McNamee put an undisclosed amount of his own money into the startup, and Elevation Partners bought 1 percent for $90 million in 2006, a stake that would be worth about $5.2 billion today. McNamee was among the advisors who recommended to Zuckerberg that he not accept takeover offers, including a $1-billion offer from Yahoo in 2006.

McNamee says that in 2016, he started to grow concerned about the problem of disinformation on Facebook, so he wrote a letter to Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg asking them what they were doing about the problem. When he was rebuffed, he started writing about how the company had gone astray, especially when it comes to privacy and misinformation, and has since published a book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. Although he appears to have kept most of the money he made from investing in Facebook, McNamee has advised Congress on how to take action against the company, and also helped create the Center for Human Technology with former Google staffer Tristan Harris.

At about the same time McNamee started publicly criticizing Facebook, another senior executive also slammed it for its effect on society. Sean Parker, a co-founder of Napster who later became president of Facebook, said in 2017 that he had become a “conscientious objector” when it came to the social network, and that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Parker (whose role at the company was immortalized by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) added that the service was designed to exploit human psychology to keep users hooked on a “social-validation feedback loop.”

Parker, who created the board structure that allows Zuckerberg to control the company, owned 4 percent of Facebook’s stock when the company went public, which at the time was worth $3.4 billion (that same stake would be worth about $20 billion today). He has created a number of philanthropic entities that provide funding for medical research and other causes, but other than that he has not spent much time trying to undo what the company created. He helped fund a startup called Brigade that was focused on increasing civic engagement, but the company lost most of its engineering team earlier this year and is said to be for sale.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who led the growth team at Facebook in the early days, said in 2017 that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” He added that the social platforms were engaging in misinformation and that this was “eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.” He later modified his comments after getting a phone call from Sandberg, saying he believes that Facebook “is a force for good in the world.” Palihapitiya’s net worth has been estimated at $1 billion, and he has used his wealth to invest in education, but otherwise doesn’t appear to have spent much of it trying to improve on the problems he identified.

Criticizing Facebook for its negative effects—and making a public performance of remorse—has almost become a cottage industry for former senior executives. But they seem more than happy to reap the benefits of the wealth they accumulated as a result of the social network’s growth. And few have tried to fund alternatives, or to find ways of using their riches to solve some of the problems it has played a role in. Apart from McNamee and the Center for Humane Technology, most of the other critics seem to prefer a generalized form of philanthropy. Why not create or invest in an open network that enhances privacy and blocks harassment or disinformation? These are some of the architects of Facebook’s success as a platform—shouldn’t they be among the best equipped to come up with alternatives?

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.