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An early Facebook investor explains why the company is so slow to reform

Fortress Facebook: Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

Roger McNamee's new book says that perverse incentives and top-down management are hindering Facebook's ability to change.

What happened to Sheryl? That’s the question increasingly being asked about Facebook’s high-profile No 2 executive.

A month ago, it was Sheryl Sandberg who responded, albeit in carefully prepared media statements, to the horror of the Christchurch shootings and Facebook’s irresponsible live-streaming of the gunman’s footage. It is usually Sandberg who fronts when crisis consumes Facebook, which is virtually a weekly occurrence at the moment.

Recruited in March 2008 after a stellar career, including building Google’s hugely successful AdWords platform, Sandberg was seen as the adult supervision chief executive Mark Zuckerberg needed to keep his fast-growing social network on track.

But 11 years on, the man who introduced her to Zuckerberg sees her as a big part of the problem. Roger McNamee is a veteran of the Silicon Valley venture-capital scene. He mentored Zuckerberg for three years, when Facebook was still a fledgling start-up, and later made a fortune as an investor in the company.

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But when McNamee privately approached his friends Zuckerberg and Sandberg in 2016 to voice alarm at the harm bad actors were able to do to innocent people on Facebook and the perverse incentives created by the platform’s business model, he was fobbed off.

Then came the 2016 presidential election and the revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns on Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. McNamee’s book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe details the well-heeled tech investor’s increasing horror at what he helped create.

It was released a few weeks before the Christchurch massacre, but the leadership failings he identifies are embodied in the earnest but empty words of Facebook’s top two as they promised to do better on live-streaming, without really agreeing to change anything.

Zuckerberg, explains McNamee, was always “indifferent to authority, rules and the users of his products”, but Sandberg was different, “brilliant, ambitious and supremely well organised”.

Roger McNamee. Photo/Getty Images

But she also became a billionaire when Facebook went public and has benefited immensely from the top-down way Facebook is run, which McNamee describes as the “most centralised decision-making structure I have ever encountered in a large company”.

He describes a management diagram of Facebook as looking like a TV antenna sticking out of a loaf of bread – Zuckerberg and Sandberg at the top and everyone else way down below.

It means that no one in the organisation is able to question the pair. That will need to change, says McNamee, though with Zuckerberg controlling the majority of voting rights in the company, it will be difficult.

Uber’s toxic senior management was cleaned out after engineer Susan Fowler went public with her experiences of sexism and bullying at the company. It led to employee and board-member revolt. But nothing similar has erupted at Facebook.

What’s the alternative? “I believe the threat from internet platforms justifies aggressive regulation, even with all the challenges of doing so in tech,” writes McNamee. “Only a very public, concerted effort by top management will change the behaviour of these companies and that will happen only if policymakers and users insist on it.”

McNamee spends a lot of time in Washington these days, talking to Department of Justice antitrust experts. The capitalist is now pushing for the tech giants to be brought down.

Is it guilt over his role as Zuckerberg’s enabler? Back then, McNamee says, Facebook was all about “babies and puppies and sharing with friends”. And Zuckerberg was the perfect mentee, following most of McNamee’s advice. But he can’t deny the responsibility he has to bear. “We suffered from a failure of imagination. Now the whole world is paying for it.”

ZUCKED: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee (HarperCollins, $35)

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.