US Capitol attack

Rappler Talk: Roger McNamee on tech platforms’ role in the US Capitol riot

Rappler
Rappler talks to early Facebook investor and author Roger McNamee on the role of tech platforms in the US Capitol riot

What role did technological platforms play in the horrific mob violence at the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6?

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa talks to Roger McNamee to find out how tech platforms enabled this. In this interview, Ressa asks McNamee what kind of accountability we will see for big tech companies under a Biden presidency, as he is set to be inaugurated this week. 

McNamee is an early Silicon Valley investor and is author of the book Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe. He is the Managing Director of Elevation Partners, a private equity investment fund that focuses on developing technology and media.

According to the Elevation Partners website, they made large private investments in Facebook years before it went public. In his book, McNamee also described himself as an early advisor to Mark Zuckerberg.

Fast forward to today, where Roger McNamee has been quoted saying “I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed” about the way Facebook has responded to criticism and evidence on how the platform is being used and abused by bad actors around the world. 

In the Rappler Talk interview, McNamee expresses his worry about the current situation in the US: “The United States has been looking around the world from this ivory tower thinking that we had the most stable democracy in the world…meanwhile we lost sight of the fact that our own democracy was being imperiled but not just indifference of our people but also by products created by Americans that were having a very deleterious event.”

To watch the exclusive Q&A with Roger McNamee, Maria Ressa, and Rappler+ members, sign up at r3.rappler.com/plus. – Rappler.com

Transcript

Maria Ressa: Hello and Welcome, everybody. I am so excited for this Rappler Talk because the man you will hear is not only wise, but he is fundamental to business, to understanding human nature, to understanding the road ahead. Roger McNamee is an early Silicon Valley investor in many of the companies that are now ruling our world – Google, Amazon, Facebook. He wrote a book called Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe. He is on so many boards and so many groups, including the Real Facebook Oversight Board and the Forum on Information and Democracy, which we both share. So he is working on how to craft legislation, what is the world going to look like behind beyond here? Roger McNamee, thank you for joining us.

Roger McNamee: Maria, it is such an honor to be on with you. So for everybody who’s watching as Maria is a hero to me. And the opportunity to do anything with her is always exciting for me. And I just want to say hello to everyone who is on this program right now. Because you all have your we’re all part of the same fight. And we all can learn from each other.

Ressa: And this is what so the other thing I gotta tell you about Roger is he is also a musician. He is not just an investor, he started a company and worked for many, many years with Bono. Elevation. So guys, this is important for us, Roger, in the Philippines, because YouTube was very huge. And when they came in December of 2019, I guess, you know, it’s like, business almost stopped, and everyone flocked to go watch them. Roger.

McNamee: I was lucky enough to be Bono’s business partner for a long time. And we still get to talk. And it was one of the great privileges because he is such an amazing humanitarian, as opposed as in addition to being a fantastic musician.

Ressa: So I want to you know, there’s so many questions, but I want to focus on on what happened in the United States on January 6, and why, you know, you have a unique perspective, tell us.

McNamee: So the incredible thing is that the United States has been looking around the world from this ivory tower, thinking that we had the most stable democracy in the world, and that we were exporting our values to other countries and telling them, you know, countries, including the Philippines, telling them how to behave, you know, and trying to sit there and suggest that there was always a better way. Meanwhile, we lost sight of the fact that our own democracy was being imperiled by not just indifference of our people, but also by products created by Americans, that we’re having a very deleterious effect. I’ll give you a very short history. So you understand the background. After the Second World War, the United States was exhausted, and people came home, and they came home as active citizens, they had been engaged in fighting the Depression, fighting the Second World War, afterwards, they needed a break. And corporations shifted their marketing to this notion that everybody could just relax, everything was under control, the US was in charge of the world. And you could be a consumer, not a citizen. And that process began in the 50s. And by the year 2000, the American economy produced essentially semi custom products in every category, you could have, you know, it was Burger King ‘Have it your way,’ that was the American economy. 

Beginning in 2000. Google started to do the same thing for ideas. They started to create a system what the Harvard professor Shoshana Zubov calls surveillance capitalism, that was designed to take the technology of the internet and use it to create essentially a Truman Show is separate reality for each and every person. And that got started under Google. But it really reached its zenith when Facebook finally figured out how to apply Google’s business model to social media. And essentially, the way to think about this is they collect an infinite amount of data about you. Every time you touch something in the real world that’s electronic, you leave a footprint, they collect all of that. Every time you go anywhere on the internet, you leave a footprint, they collect that. So they get all this stuff may create a voodoo doll, right, or digital representation of your life from which they can make a prediction about your behavior. 

And here’s the trick. They also control this system. That is where your social life takes place. It’s where you gather your information. And so they can influence your behavior in ways they’re economically desirable because they control the menus and they take what they know about you and control those menus. And so what happened was that they tripped on this notion that the most valuable data is not your public person, but your private person, what happens when you’re afraid, or when you’re angry. So they tune their algorithms to amplify the content that triggered fear and outrage. That turned out to be hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. These are not incidental to the model of Google, Facebook, they are the lubricant that makes the whole thing work. And these companies were willing to play with fire. And the Republican Party, one of the two political parties in the United States, was willing to join in and play with fire against the public health, the democracy, the privacy, and the competitive nature of the US economy. And they did this for five years beginning around 2015. And as you saw, Trump took advantage to get elected in 2016. And played it every single day of his presidency. And it all came to a head in 2020. Because Facebook had been using its recommendation engine to radicalize people. And they didn’t do it on purpose, but radicalized people are more valuable to them, because they spent more time on the site and they give more of their private information. And so what Facebook did was they did a study in 2018, to see, ‘Well, have we caused polarization in the United States?’ And the study showed that 64% of the time, two thirds of the time that people join an extremist group on Facebook, they did so explicitly because Facebook recommended it. So when Facebook confessed in 2020, that there were at least 3 million members of QAnon, the conspiracy theory on Facebook, just on the largest pages and groups. That meant Facebook had radicalized 2 million people into QAnon. 

Two things came out of that – one was denial of the existence of the pandemic, and denial of the validity effect of vaccine. So the United States has had 400,000 people die, which is larger than the number of fatalities we experienced in the Second World War. it’s larger than the First World War. it’s larger than every war we’ve ever had other than our civil war. And so it’s the largest mass death experience in the United States in the last 150 years. And it’s less than a year. So in fact, it’s the largest overall because no year the Civil War was even remotely this back. And it was entirely self-inflicted, because of a combination of Trump’s mendacity and the active empowerment of conspiracy theories on the internet, by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Instagram. 

So we get to the election, and Trump uses COVID to undermine democracy. And he talks about voting by mail as somehow fraudulent. And he builds up this whole mythology. And in the end, he he declares that the election is a fraud. And he says this over and over again, and Facebook, and Instagram, and YouTube, and Twitter, and Google all let them get away with it. And members of Congress and the republican party all join in. They are playing with fire in the midst of a pandemic, they’re undermining belief in democracy, which is going to be absolutely essential for beating the pandemic. Basically Trump files 61 lawsuits and loses 60 tried to reverse the outcome of the election. The last stand, the last hope for reversing it is the vote of the Electoral College, this ancient artifact of the US Constitution, not from the beginning, but something from around 1800. It was put in place to protect the interests of slave states. And for whatever reason, it still exists today. And the vote of those guys was the thing that would finally end that process. So Trump decides to hold a rally outside the White House by the Washington Monument on the day of the vote. And the vote is going to happen in the US House of Representatives with the entire House, the entire Senate, and the top three people in the presidential succession, all in place, the Vice President, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House on attendance. 

So Trump basically encourages his people to go down to the House of Representatives and make their voices heard. He does so with language about being strong and you know, clearly implying that they’re supposed to not take, you know, any kind of answer other than ‘Trump is present.’ And so 10s of 1000s of people. I mean, I don’t know how many, it was probably between 10 and 30,000 walked down there. And essentially stormed, the US Capitol, the first time that that has happened since the war of 1812. And unlike the war of 1812, they get inside. And they run amok. And they attack they get into the Senate chamber, but there’s nobody there because when they meet together, they meet in the House chamber because it’s large. And they evacuate the floor, but they don’t have a plan for evacuating the balcony. And 150 or so members of Congress are in the balcony, when they start storming the House floor. And there are all these doors to prevent them from getting in. They’re all protected. But they break down the doors. And just as they’re beginning to pour through. A policeman shoots the first person coming through and stops it. We came this close. By the way, feds came within one minute of being overtaken by the crowd. So we might have had a mass casualty event of members of Congress, including the three top people in the presidential line of succession. That is what happened. And the reason it happened is because Trump riled everybody up. The Republican Party supported him in what was obviously an anti democratic move. Totally authoritarian move. And Facebook and Google and Twitter, created the environment, they radicalized the people, and then gave them a platform for organizing this attack.

Ressa: Joe Biden called it an insurrection.

McNamee: Not just Joe Biden. I mean, I think that everyone would consider it an insurrection. In the United States, an insurrection is a legal term, an attack on the government. This is the first time there’s ever been an insurrection in the United States. It was an attack on the government, by the president, United States. I mean, in the south seceded, there insurrection, wound up being on the military. Right, right, not on the seat of government.

Ressa: So he takes office, his inauguration is this week on Wednesday, you know, what do you expect to happen next? What kind of accountability? What kind of government will you have?

McNamee: So the first thing we have to do is to get through the inauguration. So there have been rumors, right of I mean, they’re, they’re nervous because one of the characteristics of the Trump presidency and one of the characteristics of law enforcement over the last 25 years, has been a conscious infiltration of the military and law enforcement by white supremacists, who are the core of this group of people backing Trump. That they basically are, you know, they they’re just white supremacists. And, and so one of the problems that happened at the Capitol was both a lack of preparation, but also ignoring a ton of publicly available information if this was going to happen. It was organized, Trump called for it right after the election, and they began organizing right away. And it was plain sight on Facebook, plain sight on Parler, plain sight and other things. And the people who are in charge of security of the White House, at the Congress did not prepare adequately. And one of the things that we’re worried about for the inauguration is the fact that there might be white supremacist among the people providing security. And therefore Biden’s life might be in danger there. That is obviously a terrifying prospect. And so I don’t know what the inauguration is going to look like they were they already decided not to have a traditional one with a parade and all that kind of stuff. Now, I’m not sure they’re going to have much of anything. And I think they’re very nervous about – and justifiably so – about Biden’s security. 

So let’s assume it all goes smoothly. Okay, I think that’s the most likely case but let you know, let’s assume what happens. So Biden comes in, and he has a basic choice. He could either go and have accountability for everything that’s going on. Or he can, what they say in the United States, move on. United States has a history over the last 50 years of never forcing accountability on politicians who do great harm. They did nothing to Nixon when he undermined the Vietnam peace talks and 1968. They did – you know he finally resigned of Watergate, but he did something that killed 35,000 American troops, you know, and they did nothing about that. They did nothing when Reagan did Iran contra, they did nothing when George W. Bush started a war on false pretenses and then did torture. So lack of accountability may be, in fact, a big reason why we wound up with Trump. And Biden has already said he would rather move on. And I don’t know that he did that, that he really has that option. I do know that if he takes that option, that we’re gonna see something like this, again, because 140 members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, and I believe it was 13 in the Senate, I initially expressed interest in voting against Biden, in the electoral college thing with no evidence. In the end, after the insurrection, 60 members of the House and six in the Senate still voted against it, even after the insurrection. I mean, those people should not be allowed to serve. I mean, they are clearly active members of an insurrection. 

There’s a famous quote, from a general in the Civil War, who had served in the US Army for 50 years, he began during the war of 1812. And he was the lead general in the army. He was from Virginia, one of the states associated but he didn’t believe that. And he said, if anybody voted against Abraham Lincoln in the electoral college, or tried to obstruct that in Congress, he recommended strapping to the barrel of a 12 pound cannon, and firing them out a window of the Capitol building. And that strikes me is probably the correct response here. And now, you’d have to have a lot of cannons, or it would take you quite a while because there’s a lot of people involved. And, you know, I think it’s incredibly unlikely that anything’s gonna happen to these people. Which is, I think, unfortunate for democracy. Some, you know, some offenses are so serious, that you should literally stop everything and deal with them. And Biden has to deal with COVID first, but he can do this as well. And I hope that’s what he does. But, you know, he’s not indicated that that’s a priority.

Ressa: So this lack of accountability, I mean, our conversations have revolved around I keep telling you how are dystopian present is your dystopian future. And here it is, right? Like, we’ve we know this, if you don’t hold people to account, they come back, like the Marcoses, after 21 years of Ferdinand Marcos, his wife is back as a legislator. His daughter is a senator, his son ran and almost won for vice president. So if you’re right, if you don’t do it, but I guess, let me I want to, you know, ask you the last two questions, which is here in the Philippines, we know well, what you described. We know the polarization, we watched it happen from 2016 on. How pro-Duterte and anti-Duterte that just– the gaps kept–. We were being insidiously manipulated and continued to be manipulated to this day. You know, Mark, and Sheryl well. You’re their advisor, you know, why Sheryl Sandberg was in denial, you know, she, she deflected the other day in her–

McNamee: So I think that Mark is consumed by his vision of connecting the whole world on one platform that he controls, that I believe that Mark, if you were honest, would tell you that he thinks Facebook matters more than any country, and therefore shouldn’t be beholden. He has twice as many active users, as there are residents in China. And therefore, what is the United States or China or anyone else to tell Mark Zuckerberg what to do? I think Mark loves the power of being in that position. I think Sheryl is drawn to power. And I think that they when I knew them, they were much younger, right? My relationship with them ended in 2009. And so you know, it’s been a decade and things are different, but I never would have anticipated this. I was concerned about some things that were going on there. But it never occurred to me, we would get to this. In fact, it didn’t occur to me as recently as 2017 or even 2018 that they would follow this path. My sense was that they were blinded by success and all the positive feedback they’ve been getting, but that once it was made clear to them that democracy and public health were at stake, that they would do the right thing. The astonishing thing to me was with everything we know from the Philippines, with everything we know from Myanmar, what we know from Sri Lanka, what we know from New Zealand, and what we know from the United States and Brazil, and you know, that they would have realized that they had to stop, that their profits are not more important than society. But for whatever reason, they have not done that. And we’re being forced to live with the consequences. And sadly, for better or worse, it is up to the Biden administration to do something about that.

Ressa: And that is my last question to you, Roger, which is accountability. Right. So we talked about holding Trump accountable. What about the tech platforms? What kind of– You and I’ve worked on legislation, we’ve talked about this. What kind of legislation should there be? And what do you see ahead with the Biden administration?

McNamee: So in my view, these companies are so pervasive in their power, so great, and they are sufficiently different from anything that came before that you need to have three parallel forms of regulation. You need to think about safety, privacy, and competition. So on safety, one of the problems here is cultural. That in the United States, there is only one branch of engineering, that where there is no accountability for harm created, and that is this branch. You know, if you’re a civil engineer, you know, or if your chemical engineer, your work, you’re accountable, if you do not follow the rules. And there are no rules here, and no one’s held accountable for anything. So safety starts with creating personal liability for both executive officers and for engineers, for any harms that happen. I mean, I’d like to have some standard codes of conduct as well, you know. They put forward a duty of care, or better yet a duty of loyalty. But the first step is saying, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re going to have personal liability, because the alternative is that you have to validate in the market for 10 years, you know, the way you would with a pharmaceutical, that your product is safe, right before you can ship it.’ I think that’s probably too much. Instead, just make them personally accountable. Because you want to change their behavior, you want them to anticipate harm, and to mitigate it before the product comes to market, which they don’t do today. And it matters not just for internet platforms, this matters for artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and smart devices, all of which are really dangerous today. 

Second, privacy, people are being manipulated, they are losing their right to self determination. They’re losing, you know, their identity, who they are. If you watch these interviews, people are really bright, hard working. successful career people are we’re at the Capitol in that crowd. And they’ve gone through this tremendous transformation, because internet platforms have isolated them into this filter bubble, where increasingly dangerous ideas were implanted and reinforced with them. And they were transformed into somebody other than who they were. And their family can’t relate to them and they become dangerous people. And that was done to them. This is not their fault. So you have to, you have to do something about privacy. 

There are basically three forms, you can do nothing. You can do what’s called opt out. This is what the state of California did. This is what the state of Washington is doing. This is sort of what they do in Europe, where you have the right to ask a company to not use your data, but you have to know everybody who’s got it. In order to do that. And you have to know who to reach out to. It places all the burden on the consumer, which I believe is terribly unfair and very inefficient. Then there’s opt in. Opt in is where the company is obligated to find you and tell you they have your data and get your permission before they use it. Apple is implementing opt in in iOS 14 very soon. But it will only be for iOS applications. And so we need to have opt in everywhere. That’s a very stable system. Now Shoshana Zubov goes to a more extreme thing. She thinks the entire surveillance capitalism model should be banned. And that in general, you should not be able to use any personal data in any context. I would also subscribe to that. I think politically that’s a bridge too far in the United States today. So I’m really focused on opt in.

The last one is competition. This is generally known from a legal perspective as anti trust law. And there are several things we have to do. The first and most important is that we have to get these companies to make a choice. They can either operate a marketplace, or they can be in it, but they cannot do both. They cannot give a preference to their own products over others. So they can’t discriminate just traditional competitive things. The United States was formed as a fight against monopoly. Right, the Boston Tea Party was against a tea monopoly. And so we’ve been in a battle our whole lives against this, and we’ve lost it twice. First in this Industrial Revolution, when the robber barons assembled so much capital that they overwhelmed the existing law, we passed all the antitrust laws in response to that. And then the information revolution has done the same thing. It changes the rules, we’ve overwhelmed thing. So we need to increase competition, make it possible for alternatives to come along. And then after that, I want to break them up into 1000 little tiny pieces, so that they can’t harm us again. Now, here’s the challenge. We’re very advanced in antitrust law. They’re both things at the state level and the federal level. But they’re really serious questions about the Biden administration’s commitment to that. And so I’m very nervous, which would be tragic, because so much progress got made in the last year of Trump. On privacy, we are nowhere at the federal level, the House of Representatives, just as in antitrust, is in a great situation there. But there are no privacy laws at the federal level in the United States and I think it’s going to be an uphill battle. Right now, the states are doing the heavy work. And Apple’s doing a tremendous amount of work. And I’m hopeful that Apple’s shipping of iOS 14, with that capability will give us more momentum on safety. That’s the place I spend the most time because we’re in the worst position there. Again, the House representatives taking leadership position here, getting it completely, but we’d have to see the Biden demonstration to help out, because the Senate, I think it’s gonna be a tough haul. So I’m not super optimistic on the that we’re going to get the regulatory intervention we need quickly enough to protect the elections in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

Ressa: You know, it’s always great to talk to you, Roger, I, you know, let me close Rappler Talk so that our Rappler Plus members can also talk to you. I mean, you’re the last thought here on, you know, I always think about this moment in time. And it is both a curse and a blessing. Right? Like the fact that I’m targeting is both a curse and a blessing, because I get to know what is going on? How would you describe this moment in time? And what would you encourage anyone watching to do?

McNamee: I totally agree with you, Maria, that, that this is a moment when everything is possible. In the United States, the system we’ve had, since 1787, is done. We’ve blown it up. Now we have to decide, what is the United States going to be? Is it going to be a democracy? And if so what shape is that going to take? Or are we going to be authoritarian? Which case? What shape is that? And the people in the United States have enormous leverage here. And they’ve shown more interest from a civic engagement perspective in the last two years than at any time in the last 75– well, let’s call it the last 60, before that. And, you know, we had record turnout in this last election. So there’s real hope. I think that people of the United States are beginning to realize that it’s up to them. I think the challenge is that our leaders largely embraced politics because it had many attractive perquisites and benefits, and they generally shun confrontation, they generally shun the hard stuff. And this is all about hard stuff. Right now. We’re about to find out. Do our politicians have that? And it’s very obvious that some of them do. You may have heard of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. You may have heard of Elizabeth Warren, you may have heard of Katie Porter. What’s real, you may have heard of Nancy Pelosi. The women I think will lead us. Our dear friend David Cicilline who runs the House Antitrust subcommittee, another great leader, Adam Schiff, who runs the Intelligence Committee, another great leader, but we need a lot more. And we need them to recognize that they have to do three or four things at the same time. You know, this thing of Congress only meeting three days a week, and that’s all got to go. These guys have got to be full time members of Congress. They got to be legislating all day and all night, investigating all day and all night. And all these breaks have got to go away. And I gotta be honest with you, I am not super confident that’s going to happen. But if the people insist it will.

Ressa: Fantastic. Fantastic. Thank you. Roger McNamee, investor, musician and–

McNamee: Can I say what can I say one last thing here? Maria has been warning us the United States for many years, that what was going on in the Philippines would happen in the United States. And we demonstrated our ability to learn from the experience of others or something we repeated with COVID when we didn’t learn from China. We didn’t learn from Italy. We didn’t learn from New York City. The challenge for the United States is to learn from the experience of others. And that is something we can do right now. Because what comes next if we don’t learn is really obvious. And it’s really awful.

Ressa: Right? Right. Where you go Of course you take the world, right? We leave field here in the Philippines. So good luck on the road ahead. Roger McNamee. Guys, pick up his book – Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe. I’m Maria Ressa, thank you for joining us for this special Rappler Talk.