facebook dark side review zucked

The dark side of Facebook

A review of Zucked by Roger McNamee

The premise of Zucked, by Roger McNamee, is to wake the work up to the impending catastrophe that is Facebook. Once a fan and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, McNamee now wants to alert the world to the challenges that social media has created and the danger of having a company that is seemingly unaccountable.

Read Zucked if…

You use or work in social media and have no idea about the privacy concerns, the addictive nature of the platform or the potential risk to your mental well-being. If you’ve already engaged with these topics and have a rounded view of the benefits and dangers of social media use, and have followed Facebook privacy concerns in the media, you may not feel the full impact of Zucked in terms of a wake-up call.

Pros and cons of Zucked

As an author I found McNamee infuriating. It is strange to actively dislike an author, the only other writer who has evoked a similar feeling is Hal Elrod of The Miracle Morning. Zucked felt like a platform for a man who bore a grudge, which is a shame because the arguments in the book are valid and important for a society that struggles to disconnect from their screen.

McNamee’s suspicions of Facebook began after seeing a TED talk by Eli Pariser, the author of the excellent Filter Bubble. He was then spurred into action, to do, what on the face of it seems like nothing, in fact, after seeing the talk in 2011, he was using Facebook advertising in 2012 for his band Moonalice. There seem to be a number of juxtapositions within this book; McNamee knows Silicon valley, but not enough to make change happen immediately, he was on the forefront of what was happening, but still let it happen until he started lobbying in 2017. And yet, he isn’t a bad guy, he educated people on the dangers, he wrote a book all about the plight of Facebook.

The big downside of Zucked is that McNamee makes this a lot about himself and I don’t find his personal narrative engaging. Yes, it must have been frustrating that the 20% text to image ratio hindered his promotion of Moonalice, but this isn’t a big part of the Facebook narrative.

Key lessons

Algorithms will not in a socially responsible way on their own

The goal of the algorithms of any network is to get the user to spend more time on the network. Engagement drives dwell time through watching or reading content, commenting, creating your own content or chatting to friends. After years of use and gathering data across multiple sources social networks and Google know staggeringly large amounts about our behaviour and what makes us engage online.

“Experimental Evidence of Mass-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks”

The above is a title of a study published by Facebook in 2014 and one that McNamee makes reference to in Zucked. This research showed what happened when Facebook manipulated the balance of positive and negative messages in the News Feed of seven hundred thousand people. The scale of this ‘test’ conducted by Facebook is staggering, also when you consider that no participants gave consent. Facebook could, so they did. All those people became guinea pigs in a social experiment without their knowledge. The experiment demonstrated the ability of social media networks to impact our mood (without our knowing).

Disinformation and fake news are shared 70% more

Fake news is incredibly powerful. We’ve only seen it grow since Trump’s election and the Brexit result. An MIT study showed that it is shared 70% more and spreads six times faster. In a world where many seek news from social networks rather than from accountable sources, we are in danger of being polarised and justified in our own opinions.

How do we stem emotional contagion?

McNamee says that emotional contagion is:

analogous to wildfire. It will spead until it runs out of fuel. Left unchecked hate speech leads to violence, disinformation undermines democracy.

We need only look at the conspiracy theories around COVID-19 vaccinations, and the storming of the Capitol in the US to see that social media has a very real impact on our lives. In the conclusion of Zucked there are two potential routes offered to improve the impact of social media;

  • users force change as the platforms wouldn’t survive without them
  • government intervention to address the design and failures of networks

I wish there had been more focus on tangible actions, either for individuals or for governments. Perhaps even how individuals can help lobby governments so that these companies are held to account for their impact on our lives. Other products shown to be dangerous to our health are forced to have warnings and often have age restrictions associated. Often these limits come after the losses (namely financial through lawsuits or impact on public infrastructure) have become too large to ignore. It would be nice to think that we’d learn from past mistakes, but we probably won’t.

Rather than reading Zucked, watch this

There is no irony lost on me that many of the techniques used by social media are also employed by Netflix. The end goal of the company is to increase the user base and to get users to watch more content. Despite the challenges with online streaming and recommendations are also made via an algorithm, The Social Dilemma is well worth your time and attention.


About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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