Facebook is a 'living, breathing crime scene,' says one former tech insider

SAN FRANCISCO — With more than 2 billion users, Facebook's reach now rivals that of Christianity and exceeds that of Islam. However, the network's laser focus on profits and user growth has come at the expense of its users, according to one former Facebook manager who is now speaking out against the social platform.

"One of the things that I saw consistently as part of my job was the company just continuously prioritized user growth and making money over protecting users," the ex-manager, Sandy Parakilas, who worked at Facebook for 16 months, starting in 2011, told NBC News. During his tenure at Facebook, Parakilas led third-party advertising, privacy and policy compliance on Facebook's app platform.

As Facebook transitioned from a Harvard dorm-room project into one of the world's most valuable companies, its power grew in ways that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg never could have anticipated.

Mark Zuckerberg through the years
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Mark Zuckerberg through the years

Mark Zuckerberg creater of 'Facebook', photographed at Eliot House at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. on May 14, 2004. Facebook was created in February 2004, 3 months prior to this photograph.

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Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, participates in a discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007.

(Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, attends the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference on January 27, 2009 in Munich, Germany. DLD brings together global leaders and creators from the digital world.

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Burda Media)

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook, speaks on day three of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. This year's meeting, which is titled 'Shaping the Post-Crisis World,' runs until Feb. 1.

(Photo by Adam Berry/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., left, walks with Michael Ovitz, former president of Walt Disney Co., during a lunch break at the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Friday, July 10, 2009. The conference runs until Saturday, July 11.

(Photo by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote address at the f8 Developer Conference April 21, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Zuckerberg kicked off the the one day conference for developers that features breakout sessions on the future of social technologies.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg (L) receives the award of Media person of the year from Philip Thomas (R), CEO Of Cannes Lions as part of the 57th International Advertising Festival held at the Palais des festivals on June 22, 2010 in Cannes, France.

(Photo by Francois G. Durand/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, holds a press conference at their headquarters in Palo Alto, California, May 26, 2010. Zuckerberg outlined Facebook's new privacy control methods.

(Photo by Kim White/Getty Images)

ABC News' Diane Sawyer goes inside Facebook headquarters with the man behind it all, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to show how the site has redefined the way a generation organizes and communicates, airing on WORLD NEWS WITH DIANE SAWYER and NIGHTLINE on July 21st as well as all ABC News platforms.

(Photo by Rick Rowell/ABC via Getty Images) 

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles before speaking at a news conference at Facebook headquarters August 18, 2010 in Palo Alto, California. Zuckerberg announced the launch of Facebook Places, a new application that allows Facebook users to document places they have visited.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tim Kendall, director of product marketing for Facebook Inc., from left, Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., and Erick Tseng, head of mobile products for Facebook Inc., listen during a press conference at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. Facebook, the world's biggest social-networking site, added features to its mobile software for Android devices, making it easier for users to share their locations and sort their friends by groups.

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US President Barack Obama speaks as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (R) looks on during a town hall meeting April 20, 2011 at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., left, and Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, get ready to take questions from the audience during an event at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, U.S., on Friday, March 25, 2011. Facebook Inc., owner of the most popular social-networking site, drew investors including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in private stock sales that valued the company at $50 billion as of January.

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US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a town hall meeting April 20, 2011 at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook Inc., smiles during the closing session of the e-G8 Internet Forum in Paris, France, on Wednesday, May 25, 2011. The Internet needs government involvement to reach its full potential of linking people and boosting economic growth, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

(Antoine Antoniol/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Chief executive of French group Publicis, Maurice Levy (R) and Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg (L) attend the e-G8 press conference during the G8 Summit, on May 26, 2011 in Deauville, France. Heads of the world's wealthiest nations are meeting in Deauville, France, for the G8 summit to discuss various security, aid and trade issues, including the 'Arab Spring', nuclear safety and climate change.

(Photo by Edouard BERNAUX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., attends the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Thursday, July 7, 2011. Media executives are gathering at Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley conference this week looking to shed assets such as the Hulu LLC video website and G4 game channel amid a declining global stock market and slowing economic growth.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (L) watches a demonstration of the new Facebook video chat during a news conference at Facebook headquarters July 6, 2011 in Palo Alto, California. Zuckerberg announced new features that are coming to Facebook including video chat and a group chat feature.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., left, arrives to speak during a news conference at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. Zuckerberg said Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs advised him on how to sharpen his company's focus and build the right management team for the world's largest social network.

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (center) watches the game action between the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks on February 19, 2012 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. 

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

A woman watches Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking in a promotional video ahead of the company's IPO, in Washington on May 8, 2012. Facebook, already assured of becoming one of the most valuable US firms when it goes public later this month, now must convince investors in the next two weeks that it is worth all the hype. Top executives at the world's leading social network have kicked off their all-important road show on Wall Street -- an intense marketing drive ahead of the company's expected trading launch on the tech-heavy Nasdaq on May 18.


Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shake hands as they meet at the Gorki residence outside Moscow, on October 1, 2012. Zuckerberg was today in Moscow on a visit the government believes should stimulate innovation in Russia and the social network hopes will boost its position in the Russian market.


Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., right, and Andrew 'Drew' Houston, founder and chief executive of Dropbox, sit in a parked car at the entrance to the Lodge during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Thursday, July 12, 2012. Media moguls gathered at the annual Allen & Co. conference have spent recent years contemplating how to cope with technology companies drawing audiences away from television and movies.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during an event at Facebook headquarters on April 4, 2013 in Menlo Park, California. Zuckerberg announced a new product for Android called Facebook Home.

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Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt conference on September 11, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The TechCruch Disrupt Conference runs through September 11.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (R) arrives at the White House for an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama March 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama held the meeting with Internet CEOs to discuss 'issues of privacy, technology, and intelligence.'

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg speaks during his keynote conference as part of the first day of the Mobile World Congress 2014 at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. The annual Mobile World Congress hosts some of the world's largest communication companies, with many unveiling their latest phones and gadgets. The show runs from February 24 - February 27.

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Breakthrough Prize Founders Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg (R) attend the Breakthrough Prize Awards Ceremony Hosted By Seth MacFarlane at NASA Ames Research Center on November 9, 2014 in Mountain View, California.
(Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

Mark Zuckerberg (L), founder and CEO of Facebook, makes a courtesy call to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) at the latter's official residence in Tokyo on October 20, 2014. Zuckerberg is here to attend a Facebook's business event for their partner companies on October 16 as a surprise guest.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckenberg speaks to media after the meeting with Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo (not seen) in Jakarta, Indonesia on October 13, 2014. US-based social media Facebook founder Zuckerberg attended internet.org campaign during his visit to Indonesia, the fourth-largest number of Facebook users in the world.

(Photo by Jefri Tarigan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo (L) with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (R) at Tanah Abang Market the biggest textile market in South East Asia after meeting on October 13, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mark Zukerberg is visiting Indonesia to attend Internet developers summit and meet heads of goverment. Indonesia is a country that has a population of 240 million and has approximately 60 million active users of social media. 

(Photo by Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)

Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg at IIT Delhi, on October 28, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Speaking to about 900 students at Indian Institute of Technology, Zuckerberg said broadening Internet access was vital to economic development in a country where a billion people are still not online.
(Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, left, and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., embrace at the conclusion of a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S., on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. Prime Minister Modi plans on connecting 600,000 villages across India using fiber optic cable as part of his 'dream' to expand the world's largest democracy's economy to $20 trillion.

(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan sighted on February 26, 2016 in Berlin, Germany.

(Photo by Chad Buchanan/GC Images)

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Oculus Connect 3 event in San Jose, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Facebook Inc. is working on a new virtual reality product that is more advanced than its Samsung Gear VR, but doesn't require connection to a personal computer, like the Oculus Rift does.

(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (C) and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (L) pose as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2nd R) makes a selfie picture with them, during a visit to the presidential palace in Abuja, on September 2, 2016. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on September 2 praised Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for inspiring young entrepreneurs during his surprise visit to the west African country this week, his office said. Zuckerberg who arrived in Nigeria on Tuesday and has met with young entrepreneurs at information technology and computer centres in the country's commercial hub of Lagos and the capital Abuja.


Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) 2016 CEO Summit in Lima, Peru, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. APEC aims to create greater prosperity for the people of the Asia-Pacific by promoting balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure growth and by accelerating regional economic integration.

(Guillermo Gutierrez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Actor Vin Diesel (L) and Breakthrough Prize Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg speak onstage during the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, California.

(Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., reacts during a session at the Techonomy 2016 conference in Half Moon Bay, California, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. The annual conference, which brings together leaders in the technology industry, focuses on the centrality of technology to business and social progress and the urgency of embracing the rapid pace of change brought by technology.

(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the past 14 months, Zuckerberg has gone from saying it was "crazy" to think Facebook could influence an election to vowing that 2018 is the year he will "fix" Facebook.

While there are still lessons to be learned from how the Russians used the social platform to sow discord ahead of America's 2016 presidential election, critics say Facebook — and Zuckerberg — aren't acting quickly enough to prevent meddling in the upcoming midterm elections.

"Facebook is a living, breathing crime scene for what happened in the 2016 election — and only they have full access to what happened," said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. His work centers on how technology can ethically steer the thoughts and actions of the masses on social media and he's been called "the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience" by The Atlantic magazine.

Watch the interview this evening on "Nightly News with Lester Holt."

In response to the comments, Facebook issued a statement saying it is a "vastly different company" from when it was founded.

"We are taking many steps to protect and improve people’s experience on the platform," the statement said. "In the past year, we've worked to destroy the business model for false news and reduce its spread, stop bad actors from meddling in elections, and bring a new level of transparency to advertising. Last week, we started prioritizing meaningful posts from friends and family in News Feed to help bring people closer together. We have more work to do and we're heads down on getting it done.”

Related: Google, Facebook, Twitter and Russia: A timeline on the ‘16 election

Harris, Parakilas and Roger McNamee, a former adviser to Zuckerberg and an early investor in Facebook, spoke with NBC News in exclusive television interviews about how they say Facebook has failed its users — and what, if anything, can be done to rein in its power.

McNamee, who is one of the co-founders of investment firm Elevation Partners, alongside U2 frontman Bono, is even credited with encouraging Zuckerberg not to sell when Facebook had buyout offers in its early days.

All three insiders have written and spoken extensively about their concerns with the tech industry over the last year.

"What people don't know about or see about Facebook is that polarization is built in to the business model," Harris told NBC News. "Polarization is profitable."

There's a reason Facebook prioritizes user growth. The more data a person shares with Facebook, the more advertisements can target a user, which makes users that much more valuable to Facebook.

It's not just your name and age. Facebook can also track your likes, the content you write, your purchases and your location.

McNamee said the formula simply isn't good for democracy.

"All the content is stuff that you like, right? It's what they think you like. But what it really is, is stuff that serves their business model and their profits," he said. "And making you angry, making you afraid, is really good for Facebook's business. It is not good for America. It's not good for the users of Facebook."

Last fall, Facebook disclosed to congressional investigators that 150 million Americans were exposed to advertisements placed by Russians on Facebook and Instagram, the photo-sharing app it owns.

McNamee said he first realized content was being used to manipulate Facebook users during the first 2016 Democratic primary. He said he sounded the alarm to Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in an email, and said he heard back from both in a "matter of hours."

"They treated it like a public relations problem, rather than a substantive issue for the business," McNamee said.

Parakilas said he spoke up about possible issues before the company went public in May 2012. He said he showed senior executives how Facebook could be co-opted by foreign governments, but said no action was taken.

"It makes me terrified that something that I had a small part in helping to build is being used by people with really bad intent against America," he said. "They don't have sides. They're just trying to sow chaos."

Harris said, "I think Zuckerberg personally needs to feel the weight of this on his personal shoulders."

Last week, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is changing its news-feed algorithm to promote more quality interactions between friends and family, with less content from pages, publishers, and brands. The news sent Facebook shares tumbling 4 percent.

"I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," Zuckerberg wrote in his Facebook post detailing the new strategy. "But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term, too."

The moves to fix Facebook may be too little, too late, however: McNamee, Parakilas and Harris said self-regulation won't be enough.

They are calling on Facebook to make its data available to outside researchers who can be tasked with discovering suspicious activity before it becomes a widespread problem. They also want there to be limits on how long social media companies can use their data and, if all else fails, possibly break up social media companies that grow too large for their own good.

"Their goal wasn't to let this to happen," McNamee said. "The problem was they crafted a model that was so perfect for them, because they had been told culturally in Silicon Valley that it was OK to disrupt things. They weren't responsible for the consequences."

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