How Did Facebook Lose Its Way? A New PBS Documentary Has Some Ideas

Frontline’s yearlong investigation will air this fall

Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee (second from left) said the company was 'willfully blind' in 2016. - Credit by Rahoul Ghose/PBS
Headshot of Jason Lynch

The hits just keep on coming for Facebook. Yesterday, the company announced that it had removed dozens of accounts that were seeking to interfere with the midterm elections.

And as the fallout continues from Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election via the platform, PBS’ Frontline documentary series is putting the final touches on its yearlong investigation into Facebook and its recent scandals. The program, called The Facebook Dilemma, will air this fall.

Frontline producers, and others involved in the program, talked about the rise and fall of Facebook yesterday at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in L.A., and shared their insights about how the social network—which was created with the goal of connecting the world—had lost its way.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg from 2006-2009, who is interviewed in the documentary, said he approached Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in October 2016 with his concerns about how the platform was being used and “that the product was being manipulated by bad actors to harm innocent people.”

But he was stunned that the execs treated it like a public relations problem, not like a business problem.

“They treat the First Amendment like it’s supposed to protect them, not their users.”
Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor

“I thought that the problem was that Facebook was being manipulated by bad actors and that the people running Facebook were the victims, along with their users,” said McNamee. “What I’ve discovered since then is the culture of the company took them to a place where they had a very fixed goal, which was to connect the world and to build the largest, most valuable network of history of humanity. And they convinced themselves that literally everything was OK in the service of that goal and that anything that got in the way of that goal could be either ignored or eliminated.”

As a result of that, “I think that they were willfully blind during 2016 of what was going on,” said McNamee of Facebook.

Producer James Jacoby said the Frontline documentary interviews a researcher about the fact that Facebook needed to create a “paranoia department” of independent researchers and critics who could “think through all the sorts of potential problems or downsides of creating what is a pretty marvelous technology. But they really didn’t do that,” because they saw themselves as a tech platform and didn’t want to devote resources to hiring “human beings … to think through some of the downstream consequences.”

Facebook has also been able to thrive—for good and for bad—because of a pair of key changes in Silicon Valley and consumers’ perception of technology pre- and post-2000.

McNamee pointed out that during the first 50 years of Silicon Valley, from 1950-2000, there was never enough processing power or bandwidth for people to accomplish what they wanted to, which “put a huge premium on experience, because you needed old folks to figure out how to get the most out of the little bit of stuff you had,” he said.

"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 that these agencies have."
Dana Priest, Washington Post reporter

That changed in the early ’00s, just before Facebook was founded. Now “you could build a company entirely of 20-year-olds with no experience,” McNamee said. Add that shift to Silicon Valley’s new “libertarian” philosophy, and “suddenly you’ve got people with no experience in an environment where you’re basically absolved of responsibility for the consequences of your actions, and that’s going to produce some problems.”

Meanwhile, consumers saw no downsides to technology from 1950-2000. “Technology moved us forward. Technology optimism was a completely rational perspective,” said McNamee.

But during the past couple of years, that has changed. “Not only is technology optimism no longer rational, it’s dangerous. And the users have not yet caught up to that fact,” said McNamee. “By aggregating so many people in an environment where the economics are driven by monopolizing attention and attention is maximized by appealing to anger and fear, you wind up creating this environment that pushes all the power to the loudest, angriest voices in the economy.”

This is exacerbated by the fact that “happiness is not viral, because most people resent other people’s happiness, whereas fear and anger are intensely viral,” said McNamee, who saw 2016’s Brexit movement as a wake-up call. “Facebook so obviously provides a massive advantage to inflammatory messages over neutral ones.”

Dana Priest, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist and Frontline correspondent, said she was drawn to Facebook after spending a decade covering intelligence agencies. As she began investigating the social network she realized, “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 that these agencies have.”

And media companies helped contribute to Facebook’s dominance. “All of our media organizations signed on the [Facebook] bandwagon when the media market fell through,” Priest said. “But I’d say none of our media organizations could have predicted what that would lead to, not only the cuts in our own advertising profits, but that it would be Facebook’s power as the main global media distributor throughout the world.”

McNamee said that Facebook has “twisted” the First Amendment in two ways. First, “they treat the First Amendment like it’s supposed to protect them, not their users.” But also, “they have crafted a thing designed to give disproportionate power to the angriest, most inflammatory voices,” said McNamee. “They have actually gone out of their way to foster that precise environment because that is what generates the most profit.”

The Frontline documentary will also look at whether, and how, Facebook might be able to find its way again. Producer Jacoby said that McNamee and other voices in the program propose solutions to The Facebook Dilemma.

Among their ideas, according to Jacoby: “Maybe Facebook should be a subscription model and that the advertising engine has maybe been the thing that got the company into trouble, and this whole attention economy, maybe that needs a whole rethink.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.