Report: Facebook likened to Addictive Drugs, for Sake of Ads

John Lister's picture

One of the earliest investors in Facebook and Google has likened the effects of major Internet companies on users to the effects of addictive drugs. Roger McNamee accused the companies of "aggressive brain hacking" to make their ad business more profitable.

Writing for USA Today before discussing the topic on NBC, McNamee also likened the companies' behavior to that of the gambling industry. He said they "exploit human nature, creating addictive behaviors that compel consumers to check for new messages, respond to notifications, and seek validation from technologies whose only goal is to generate profits for their owners." (Source:

Users Get Mini-'Hits'

McNamee's argument is based on the idea that online sites, particularly social media, are deliberately designed to give users small hits of happiness that don't have long-term benefits. Instead users are addicted to returning to the site regularly to get a "fix", thus exposing them to more ads.

The column says social networking and search tools themselves aren't the problem, and that they can be valuable for users. Instead, the problem according to McNamee is companies manipulating their products for the benefits of advertisers.

Among the examples cited in the piece are Facebook experiments about manipulating the mood of users by adjusting what they see in their news feeds, as well as exploring whether it could be possible to target ads at teenagers whose online activity indicated they were depressed.

Accountability In Question

McNamee also highlighted what he called a lack of accountability for the biggest companies because of their size, and the way their services cross national borders. He noted that the user bases of Facebook and YouTube are similar in size to the biggest world religions, telling NBC that the companies "are allowed to run experiments across a population of 2 billion people without being accountable for what happens."

Speaking later to Business Insider, he said "The executives at Google and Facebook are good people but the unintended consequences of their well-intended strategy is causing enormous harm to society, to democracy and to the economy." (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Do you agree with McNamee's views? Is it fair to liken the effects of social media and search tools to addictive drugs and gambling? Should major Internet firms be held more accountable for the effects they have on users, and is that even possible to do?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (3 votes)


Dennis Faas's picture

I'm not sure I agree with the findings here. If you run a website successfully, you need to create "sticky content" that keeps bringing back users in order to generate consistent revenue. Facebook and Google have done their best to make this happen - and by doing it properly, they are also serving ads by the boatload and making oodles of cash off their user base.

Whether or not I would blame them for being business savvy or calling their creations "an addiction" is another story. Perhaps the smart phone is addictive in its own right, with users constantly checking to see if there is a new update / notification on their phone. On the other hand, having a smart phone is also incredibly convenient.

The point is: if you can't live without your phone / Facebook and have withdrawals if you can't check a status update, then that is definitely a problem. Finding the proper balance between convenience and addiction is what is needed.

matt_2058's picture

I can see the guy's points and agree to some extent. It is like an addictive drug to some people. I don't know about internet firms being held accountable because I don't think there is a foolproof way to qualify and quantify the transgression.

I can see where a site may start off with a good idea and maybe even a good product. Then because it is successful, it morphs into something else to take advantage of the success....and revenue.

There is a difference in intent alot of times. Is the site the product and the profit a result, or is the site the lure for profit? The missions are different. And that's where it can become an issue.

A good example is news sites vs fake news sites. In the business of News...or is news the vehicle for profit? Once the purpose is compromised the side effects multiply...intended or not.

Is the site selling ads because of traffic, or is the ad revenue the target? If you to make oodles of cash selling ads, become an ad agency. Don't pretend to be a dating site, a news site, or whatever. And if the core business isn't making it and the ads are that crucial, well, that says alot.

scowei's picture

This is similar to the discussion about obesity, which is related (in large part) to the super-tasty, engineered food that is available so cheaply. It has addictive properties for many. How did we get here? The competitive forces that drive companies to strive for ever greater market penetration and profits.

Same with Facebook, etc. It is the nature of capitalism to drive this never-ending quest for superior customer satisfaction...even when it crosses a line into something that is perhaps not so good for many.

And I benefit from it. I don't use Facebook at all personally, but I'm running ads on it every day for two different online businesses. Everything FB has done to make it more attractive to consumers has been matched on the advertiser side...extremely granular targeting for one. There's a story out there about how a guy targeted ads that ran only to his roommate. And the ads are cheap.

With a "pixel" installed on your site, the data you can glean on your visitors makes re-targeting very effective.

Frankly, with the sea of content out there, it's nearly impossible to get any attention without using FB's/Instagrams advertising solutions.

Not sure how I feel about all of that, but...

ecash's picture

Humans are strange creatures and the YOUNG are the most susceptible to What the OLDER humans have learned to ignore..

Humans LOVE interaction..
Humans Love Cause and affect..

Say something, GET something..
Do something, Get something..
Its part of the learning ability as we grow up..
AND if you can KEY into this, Like CARTOONS/COMICS and adverts...its a sell.

Anyone old enough to remember Comics DIDNT have allot of adverts..
THEN they had EVERY OTHER PAGE as an advert..
NOW you pay a fortune for a comic and there are Less adverts, but STILL there are adverts.

Some cartoons have 15 min of adverts or MORE..but the Toons is something kids like..

I DO have a problem with Adverts tho..
Face book DIDNT have lots...NOW they have Adverts, 3rd party context from sites, AND Amazon and Google DO TRACK you, and Facebook reads this data and SHOWS THEIR OWN ADVERTS..
Go look..HOW many posts, ARE NOT from friends and family and those you INVITED.
Contextual GARBAGE and CLICK BAIT.. STUFF that makes you WANT to post an opinion...AND SITES that read your data, and SPAM YOU..

I used to Love finding and searching the net...and NOW most of the sites are GONE or lost to CRAP covering up search, that you will be on page 100+ to find the same sites..
Look at google, and the Ad markers...Look at the links or click thru...ANOTHER SEARCH ENGINE on the tails of google, trying to usurp..a few sales..

I LOVE sites that want me to Turn off ADBLOCK.. so I can watch 3rd party Adverts..
I send them letters on MAKE YOUR OWN ADVERTS, make MORE money,, I dont mind SITE adverts. 3rd party can go Suck an egg..
Its entertaining that MOST of the porn sites are CLEANER then the legit sites..
try this site...With adblock and NoScript..34 scripts, TONS of 3rd party crap..
I sent letter telling them its bad programming. they dont get it.