Roger McNamee speaks at "The Fake News Horror Show" | Photo: Steven Rosenbaum @MagnifyMedia
When I walked into the room, I was expecting a horror show.
Why? Well, because the two-day event was called the “Fake News Horror Show” and was produced by the NYC Media Lab. So no one was pretending there was good news right around the corner.
Still, while most of the horror was terrible, it wasn’t surprising. We were shown audio robots that can take your voice and create fake posts in your voice. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s voices were faked with chilling accuracy. Then there was “face swap,” where computer code pasted your face and voice on an existing piece of video. Somewhat less convincing, but still a clue about the future of synthetic video.
But that wasn’t the scariest part. For me, the most jarring was seeing Roger McNamee in a suit and tie.
McNamee and I have been friends a long time, and I’ve always thought of him as a rock-and-roll banker. He stood out among my Valley friends because he’d been able to cut a unique path through the tech sector. He’s the managing director of Elevation Partners, a VC firm he started with Bono from U2. He’s the front man for Moonalice, a psychedelic rock roots band that has been on tour for more than a decade.
With his mane of long flowing hair and tie-dyed musical persona, McNamee doesn’t need to wear banker garb.
So the suit was scary — and McNamee knew it. He said, with no irony, that he was wearing “camouflage” so that he could get past the media gatekeepers and sound an alarm.
Here’s why I’m scared, and you should be too.
McNamee was an early investor in Facebook, and self-described mentor of Mark Zuckerberg’s back in 2005. He told the gathering that he started to see strange things on the platform as early as 2016 that felt to him like bots and purposeful manipulation. He went to Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in October 2016 “and said, ‘Hey, I see all this stuff going on the platform, which you cannot explain by normal human behavior. Somebody is trying to manipulate the platform.’”
Just note the date — 2016, BEFORE the election. And this wasn’t from some rabble-rousing outsider. He is Valley royalty. He is an early investor. And he smelled smoke and pulled the fire alarm.
What happened? Nothing. “They were incredibly polite, but they didn't think they needed to do anything about it. It was the equivalent of patting me on the head,” said McNamee.
Now as the facts come out, it turns out that McNamee was right. Facebook is operating what he called their standard play of apologizing and going back to business as usual. He said the company thinks it's going to “get away with it.” So, he asked, are we comfortable with that?
“The same tools that make Facebook so addictive for users and so effective for advertisers are dangerous in the hands of bad actors,” McNamee wrote in the Washington Post. “And thanks to automation, Facebook cannot currently prevent harm. It will happen again and again until Facebook takes aggressive action.”
Now just to be clear: Even if Facebook slammed on the brakes and did everything in its power to shut down fake news on the platform, we’re a long way away from solving the problem. Fake news is seemingly permitted on platforms including 4chan and Reddit. And the nature of our digitally interconnected lives means the problem of separating fact from fiction is most certainly going to get worse before it gets better.
Still, the bad actors have been emboldened by the relative lack of consequences from their strategic digital attack on our democracy. And it does feel like the social networks face a daunting challenge in 2018, as they can no longer say they’re unaware of the fake news plague that is “tailor-made for abuse by bad actors,” according to McNamee.
Facebook is “almost the same size as Christianity. When you are presiding over the largest interconnected organization in the world, that gets to your head after a while,” McNamee said. “There are 2.2 billion people on Facebook, each with their own Truman Show. Everybody has their own set of facts.”
So Is he scared? You bet he is.
"I’m terrified about the election stuff. I’m terrified because, without the help of the platforms, especially Facebook, it’s going to be really hard to prevent this stuff.”
He said to New York magazine: “The thing I’m telling everybody is, if you want to prevent election interference in 2018 and 2020, the best thing we can do is set records for turnout. If everybody votes, we will dilute the interference dramatically, because the goal of it is to activate one side and then suppress the vote everywhere else. You really want to activate the minority and suppress the majority. If everybody votes, that gets neutralized.”
Horror show, indeed. Be afraid. Be very afraid.