‘Facebook destroyed democracy,’ says the U.S. government’s former head of technology

While making the case for broader storytelling around technology and innovation, Megan Smith, former chief technology officer of the United States, shared her seemingly honest thoughts on the social impact of Mark Zuckerberg and Meta, the parent company of Facebook.

Describing a hypothetical news program about innovation, Smith says, “We all know who’s gonna be on that, it’s gonna be Elon [Musk]. It’s gonna be Jeff [Bezos]. It’s gonna be Zuck [Mark Zuckerberg]. There’s a lot more people, I love them, maybe not Zuck…Facebook destroyed democracy.”

Smith was, presumably, referring to Facebook’s role as a platform of choice for those looking to spread misinformation during the period leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as its role in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and other occurrences of political instability or insurrection around the world. Smith’s term ended with the Obama administration’s in January 2017, and much of this information came to light through multiple whistleblowers and investigative reports that were not public until after Smith left.

Smith’s comment drew laughter from the crowd assembled at the Conrad Hotel in Washington, D.C., for the 2022 Social Innovation Summit. She was speaking onstage with her former colleague Thomas Debass, managing director and chief partnerships officer for the U.S. Department of State. The focus of their conversation was the role of the public sector in social innovation.

“There’s so many talented people on the Facebook team,” Smith said, noting that such smart, highly qualified people should have been able to solve the social issues that were a byproduct of their core offering. “As soon as the challenges are happening, stop the trains, work on that problem as the highest priority,” she recommends, adding that this is the type “of ethical capability we can have.”

After nearly two decades in the private sector, working at startups as well as Apple and Google, Smith served as the federal government’s chief technology officer from 2014 to 2017 and then started Shift7, a firm focused on driving social change through technical innovation. In addition to her comment about Facebook’s destructive impact on democracy, she outlined her thoughts on public-sector innovation in her conversation with Debass.

In the private sector, Smith explains, “we have engineers and product managers in charge, and the policy [and] comms folks are trying to get a word in edgewise.” In the government, she said, it’s the reverse: “The policy and comms folks are leading, and the tech people aren’t even invited into the meeting.”

This was her case for inclusion that also has relevance for leaders trying to move their organizations forward on any dimension, whether it is sustainability, diversity, data, or technology. Smith notes that it’s really part of a mindset shift needed today to accept new forms of expertise when making key organizational decisions.

“There are smart, talented people [in the government] who really, really know what they’re doing,” Smith says. “But they haven’t had the practice of having people of our capability be part of the orchestra in the band with them…that’s a mistake.”

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