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Social media has done 'extraordinary damage' to democracy, public health, safety: Expert

Elevation Partners Managing Director and “Zucked” author Roger McNamee joins Yahoo Finance Live to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Kanye West, Elon Musk's lawsuit with Twitter, and how social media policies have impacted societies.

Video transcript

- Kanye West getting suspended on social media over the weekend, both Twitter and Instagram moving to restrict his accounts following a string of anti-Semitic posts. Kanye was first locked out of Instagram, which prompted him to take to Twitter for the first time in two years. It's the latest test for social media companies' willingness to monitor hateful content on their sites.

Joining us now for more on this, we want to bring in Roger McNamee, Elevation Partners managing director and author of "Zucked." Roger, it's great to see you again. Certainly there has been a large debate about content moderation, how social media companies should go about this. I guess just from your perspective, what does this tell us just in terms of where we are when it comes to policies and the handling of hate speech on these social media platforms?

ROGER MCNAMEE: The context is that six years ago, there was interference in the UK referendum around Brexit and then the US presidential election. Since then, we've had ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. We've had an extraordinary number of terrorist events. We've had the COVID pandemic and the undermining of the country's response to that. We've had the insurrection with Stop the Steal.

We've had extraordinary damage done to democracy, public health, public safety, and people's ability to make their own choices. And yet policymakers have done nothing, absolutely nothing. And I think that the whole situation with Kanye West, with Elon Musk attempting to buy Twitter, really highlights the extraordinary inaction and, frankly, in my mind, really unpardonable inaction by Congress, by the president to do something about what is clearly a threat, not just to safety in the country, but especially to national security. Twitter has a whistleblower who showed that there are people inside Twitter who are working for foreign governments. And for a platform that has as much influence on politics and democracy as Twitter has, that's extraordinarily dangerous.

- And so, Roger, where does the conversation go in terms of accountability for those posting as well as those moderating and the pace at which they're able to monitor these things?

ROGER MCNAMEE: So I'm not at all confident that we can fix this problem. There are three aspects of it. The first is the scale of the platforms. Facebook, for example, where the worst offenses have taken place, has literally billions of posts every day. So the notion that you're going to somehow effectively monitor that number of posts is a big stretch.

The second problem is latency, the amount of time-- even if you had enough moderators, even if the artificial intelligence worked, which it doesn't, but even if those things worked perfectly, there's still going to be a lag. And the problem is the harm gets done in the first seconds after these harmful posts are put out.

The third problem is one of incentives. And this is the one that's killing us because there is no reason from an economic perspective why these companies should look out for the safety of their users, much less protecting the country's national interest. Right now the incentives are for them to make as much money as they can as quickly as they can and not worry about the consequences. And until that changes, I don't think there's a chance we're going to do anything good about this.

There are exceptions. When somebody is really, really bad, the way the Kanye West was this weekend, you will see politically it becomes impossible for these guys not to act. But the rest of the time, they're going to do nothing.

- We'll see how long that ban lasts. Roger, as you know, California has acted when it comes to social media companies. And now Section 230 at least is on the plate of the Supreme Court. How, if at all, do you think this could change the situation?

ROGER MCNAMEE: It's very, very hard to tell. Section 230 is incredibly important because what it does is it gives platforms the legal right to maintain the environment of their choosing. So that part of it's really, really good.

Where I think things went off the rails is that the platforms chose, because the economics were better, to favor harmful content over good content. Basically hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are extraordinarily profitable because they trigger flight or fight. So people have to pay attention. And in a business where attention is everything, that kind of content is going to rise to the surface repeatedly.

So we have to change those incentives. I do not think 230 is the way to do that. I think the thing you have to do is to regulate the business model, which is called surveillance capitalism. It's this notion that you gather all the data about people and you use it to manipulate their choices and to manipulate their behavior. That must change.

And we also have to have laws that require safety. The same way we require safety for transportation or health care or other things, we need to require safety around these platforms because the companies have to have an incentive to protect the people who use their systems.

- And Roger, from the conversations that you're having from people within the industry, from lawmakers, from what we're hearing just from Capitol Hill, I guess, how confident are you that we will actually see some change? And what does that mean then for some of the largest players in this space, like Meta and Twitter?

ROGER MCNAMEE: I'm not at all confident. We are making progress, but it is incredibly slow in comparison to the damage that these companies are doing. And when I first started talking about this publicly in 2017, it was really obvious to me that the issue was the culture, the business model, and algorithms of platforms could undermine democracy and civil rights.

I went to Congress in the spring and summer of 2017 and then continued to push them to try to do something about it. More than five years have gone by. Several elections have gone by. An insurrection has gone by. A pandemic has been amplified.

And yet nothing has been done. So I don't have a lot of confidence because the pressure from the public doesn't exist. And until people start saying, wait a minute, we really, really value democracy, we really value our public health, we really value public safety, and we recognize that these companies are a danger, nothing's going to happen.

- And Roger, as we saw with Twitter as they began banning people, we saw apps like Truth Social, some of these other more siloed avenues also pop up as well. What does that do to this picture when you're trying to monitor these different things, but then having these different siloed platforms coming up as well?

ROGER MCNAMEE: To be clear, I think that in the United States people should be free to say the things that they feel and believe. But not all forms of speech are protected by the First Amendment. You're not allowed to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. You're not allowed to threaten elected officials.

There are lines that people should not be allowed to cross. And the problem we have today is there is no enforcement of those lines. In fact, the lines-- I think everybody knows where they are. We just choose to not engage with it.

And I don't know how we're going to solve that problem. I'm hopeful. There is more progress today than there has been any time in the last five years. But it's so slow. And I do believe that politicians and, frankly, journalists and the citizens would rather not disrupt the convenience of the status quo to deal with hard problems like this. And I think it's a gigantic issue.

- And then there's the question, Roger, of what would Elon do? How will Elon Musk impact the situation you just described if and when he owns Twitter?

ROGER MCNAMEE: So the exciting thing for investors is that it does appear that Elon Musk's position in the Delaware Chancery Court is very bad. So the odds of either a court decision or action by Musk to complete the deal are higher than they've been at any time in this process. And even if he finds a way to weasel out, it looks to me as though it's going to cost him more than just the breakup fee.

So investors in Twitter are probably pretty well positioned in the short term. I can't say the same for America. I mean, the problem with Twitter is they've done a horrible job for years at managing the discourse on the platform. And there's no evidence that Elon Musk has a plan to improve that. In fact, it's not clear what plan he has at all.

And what has happened over the last couple of weeks is the disclosure by the court of the text conversations with prospective investors has been super embarrassing for those investors. And that creates some doubt about financing of the deal. And so I don't quite know how this is going to play out at the deal level.

What I'm really worried about is that the company will go into a situation where not even investors will be able to have any influence on the outcome. And in that situation with somebody like Musk, who seems to rejoice in trolling others and seems to think that trolling is a really positive value, that, for a platform with where all of politics, all of journalism, and all of celebrity does its communications, that's just going to produce terrible outcomes.

- It's going to certainly be tested again in the midterm elections coming up. A big thank you to Roger McNamee for joining us this afternoon. Thank you so much.