Wednesday’s insurrection should have been a surprise to exactly no one. Division and outright rage have been reaching a boiling point for several years now, and we’ve watched Trump fervently stir the pot since Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election. Much of the provocation from the President, and the rallying of his insurgents, took place before our very eyes on social media. Which begs the increasingly urgent question — what role and responsibility does social media have in today’s world?
Currently the FTC and 46 US States, the District of Columbia and Guam are suing Facebook for anticompetitive practices, with a similar suit recently announced against Google. These lawsuits specifically address the issue of stomping out competition, and don’t even touch on privacy, data collection, fake news, election interference, or Section 230, so it may seem that these particular suits are Wall Street’s concern and not at issue in this conversation. While they certainly are of concern to Wall Street (US tech stocks are now worth more than the entire European stock market), the implications of what happens on Wall Street are far reaching.
Facebook alone spent $81 million on lobbying in Washington between 2010–2019, while Big Tech cumulatively spent nearly half a billion dollars. That means that these corporations are using their money to influence lawmakers and laws, as well as spending millions on the best legal defense teams to ensure that they are allowed to continue operating in whatever way is most profitable to them.
Many of our laws have not caught up with or are not keeping pace with the rapid growth of the online world, meaning that Big Tech is operating in a wild west of sorts, with the money and power to shape the rules that should be governing them. Some companies are even crossing over into the realm of becoming “too big” to be taken down or taken apart, just as banks were “too big to fail” in 2008, using this as a defense of their size and scope while it should be used as a blaring alarm to exit, and exit now.
Back in 2018, it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook user data to deliver targeted ads to influence voter turn-out and election results. The election interference was only half as alarming as Facebook’s handling of the situation, as well as the amount of information they were able to gain with the data.
While the actual impact of Cambridge Analytica’s ads on the election results are still debated, it was realized that Facebook’s own algorithms influenced the election results in devastating ways without the help of Cambridge Analytica. In order to maximize user engagement (in order to sell more ads and/or charge more for ads), Facebook’s algorithms promoted divisive posts and conspiracy theories over more neutral content, fueling peoples’ innate tribalism, nationalism, confirmation bias and fears. The algorithms weren’t designed to be malicious, simply to maximize engagement, but AI’s lack of moral reasoning or ethical restraints, and the lack of any outside oversight, meant that no amount of damage it left in its wake could raise any red flags. The algorithms were working beautifully, just like an atomic bomb.
The types of algorithms Cambridge Analytica and Facebook use are fed with all the data they collect from tracking you, a practice that is largely unregulated as of now. The biggest challenge to Facebook has come not from the government, which has been criticized for its toothless approach with Big Tech, but from within Silicon Valley itself via Apple’s new privacy policies. The new policy allows users to see how their apps are tracking them and the results, while not surprising, are nonetheless shocking.
Fast-forward to October 2020, more than two years after the public found out about Cambridge Analytica and five years after Facebook knew, Facebook threatened to sue NYU for a study they were conducting on political ad placement. NYU stood by their study, which looked into how political ads were targeted. Read that again. Political ads were targeted. Algorithms (which even these companies don’t fully understand) use the data they have on users to determine which ones will see which political ads. At present there are no regulations on how the algorithms work, of micro-targeting ads, or disclosures to users about the aforementioned.
Mark Zuckerberg refused to remove political ads containing lies and misinformation, and while Twitter did block political ads long before Facebook, Jack Dorsey has defended Twitter’s decision to allow world leaders such as Trump leeway in breaking their own policies. These CEOs (among others) have washed their hands of responsibility for the outcomes of what takes place on their platforms. Protected by Section 230 and under the defense that they should not be “the arbiters of truth,” they insist instead that it is in the public’s best interest that their platforms exercise no censorship.
But if the content and ads users see on the platform are manipulated and curated by AI, haven’t they already crossed that line? When an invisible, personalized algorithm is shaping our experience of reality, what could you call it but the arbiter of your personal truth? Claims of it being in the public’s best interest to allow world leaders carte blanche to lie and instigate, to allow misinformation to spread like wildfire, and insurgent groups to form, also start to wilt in the light of an attempted coup that was incited, fueled and planned on social media.
Though there have been many pleas to do more to quell the mounting unrest, these platforms, left largely to govern themselves, have tended to allow things to play out as they will. On Wednesday we saw the power of social media play out, and it wasn’t pretty.
We are living in a pivotal moment of history; the decisions that are made today, in regards to antitrust laws in technology, data tracking and privacy, free speech on the Internet, how much free reign Big Tech has, how much power they’re able to accumulate, and how they wield that power, will forge the path to tomorrow. Who will have the power? Where will the money be? What rights will people have, and will those rights be shared equally? Whatever decisions we make about those questions right now will shape the world our children inherit. Just as the founding fathers forged the path toward the America we live in today, so we are tasked with ushering in the new era of technology, and the new world it has created.