A CSR agenda for Silicon Valley

The tech industry’s honeymoon is over. It came to an abrupt end on the 9th of November, 2016 — the day Silicon Valley’s unintended consequences became unignorable.

That morning, the world woke up to the news that America’s most famous Twitter troll had been elected President. Later in the day, on the opposite coast of America, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked a question about his company’s role in spreading fake news that may have helped Donald Trump get elected. He said the idea that fake news on Facebook had played any significant role in the election was “pretty crazy” and accused those who thought otherwise of “a profound lack of empathy.”

The trouble for Zuckerberg was that millions of people in his core constituency — young, liberal-minded, social media savvy and devastated by Trump’s win — disagreed. Within days, his tone had changed. Facebook took its responsibilities very seriously and was actively looking into a variety of solutions to the fake news problem, he said. Code for “get off our backs!”

It had been a good run for the Silicon Valley crowd. As The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist put it recently:

‘For decades tech bosses have pushed a convenient doublespeak to explain their firms’ rise. Their dazzling products are the creations of their leaders. The resulting fortunes are these visionaries’ just reward. But the economic and social consequences of the industry’s output, not all of them good, are no one’s responsibility. Instead, the industry argues, they are the result of unavoidable shifts in technology, in turn responding to society’s broad demands. This logic has allowed tech firms to avoid responsibility for the stolen or bilious content that they publish and for the jobs that their algorithms help eliminate — to say nothing of their own oligopolistic market shares. Silicon Valley boasts of its own might and shrugs at its own impotence both at once.’

For too long, we swallowed this story whole. We accepted that the trajectory of technological progress was inevitable and failed to pay attention to the choices being made by the companies behind the technology — choices that have profound real-world consequences. Now, at long last, the scales have fallen from our eyes and it’s time to ask afresh what it means to be a socially responsible company in the digital age.

Unintended consequences

This is not a story of evil intent. The founders of Twitter, Facebook and Google did not set out to undermine truth and democracy. In fact, quite the opposite. Explaining the origins of Twitter’s name and bird logo, the company’s co-founder Biz Stone told Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett: “I had the image of people flocking together, like birds.” Zuckerberg has frequently parroted similarly earnest claptrap about his dream of “a more connected world.”

A friendly flock or an angry swarm?

A recent WIRED story — ‘How Silicon Valley utopianism brought you the dystopian Trump Presidency’ — explains how these good intentions backfired. “There are things we were optimizing for that had unintended consequences,” says one chastened venture capitalist. The article goes on to explain: ‘in designing to maximize engagement, social networks inadvertently created hives of bias-confirmation and tribalism.’

In other words, conscious choices made by companies are creating negative externalities for society — albeit unintended ones (the first people to pump oil out of the ground didn’t do it with the deliberate goal of wrecking the environment, either). An exclusive focus on the tally of eyeballs and click-throughs attracted is the digital economy’s equivalent of unfettered short-term profit maximisation.

This is where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) comes in. For all its faults, the CSR movement has broadly succeeded in making it unacceptable for traditional companies to blithely ignore the negative social and environmental externalities of their operations. Now, rather than fawning over Silicon Valley’s voguish promises to make the world a better place, we must apply the same rigour to the digital economy.

So what are the negative externalities I would like to see higher on Silicon Valley’s agenda? Clearly, though Donald Trump’s election is what has brought some of these issues to a head, I’m not advocating that private companies should be held responsible for ensuring democratic elections produce the “right” outcome. Instead, I would suggest a focus on three fundamental issues:

1. Mental health

A considerable weight of research has shown that we are currently living through a social media-fuelled mental health epidemic — one that primarily afflicts young people. According to a September 2015 Telegraph article by Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, a UK children’s charity, ‘in 1995 around one per cent of calls [to the NSPCC’s helpline for children] — just over 1000 — were on issues like loneliness, low self-esteem, depression and mental health. Turn the clock forward 20 years and the figure has risen astronomically to over 85,000, or roughly one in every three.’

Lest you think it coincidental that this ‘astronomical’ rise in mental health issues has mirrored a similar take-off (from a base of zero in 1995) in social media use, consider this finding from the UK’s Office for National Statistics: amongst children who spend no time on social networking sites, just 12% show symptoms of mental ill-health; amongst excessive social media users (defined as spending more than three hours a day on social media sites), that figure more than doubles — to 27%.

What makes these numbers particularly concerning is the way the worst outcome for society aligns so neatly with the best outcome — defined in terms of engagement — for social media companies. It’s a vicious circle: excessive social media use leads to an increase in anxiety and loneliness; anxious and lonely people are more likely to spend hours scrolling through their social media feeds, posting selfies and seeking the validation of a few more “likes” from their “friends”. Until Facebook, Instagram and co start to think about broader measures of success that go beyond their ability to keep people hooked on their products, it is, perversely, in their interest to turn ever more of us into anxious, narcissistic, isolated wrecks.

2. Truth

Lies are as old as language. Fake news pre-dates the internet by several millennia. So what’s different about these ‘post-truth’ times? Answer: the worldwide web has caused a revolution in the ease with which fake news can be disseminated and the internet giants that have come to dominate the online realm have built business models that make it, in the words of Guardian columnist Evgeny Morozov, ‘extremely profitable … to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives.’

Deceitful, pro-Trump clickbait spread far and wide by Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms is just the tip of the iceberg. In December, the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr produced an extraordinary — and chilling — exposé of Google’s role in spreading some of the most despicable lies imaginable. She found that, judging by the majority of first-page results on Google, you would have to conclude that Jews, Muslims and women are all evil. What’s more, Google has become a tool for the subversion of historical truth:

‘And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys” I click on the link: “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler really wasn’t that bad.’

Of course, Google didn’t generate any of this hateful content itself. It merely spreads the muck, trusting in its “neutral” algorithms. But such irresponsible “neutrality” is simply not good enough. Google and co need urgently to play their part in — to borrow my colleague John Elkington’s apt phrase — ‘draining the swwwamp.’

3. The norms of a democratic society

Democracy relies on norms of civility, pluralism and at least a degree of openness — on the part of voters — to persuasion that the other side’s right and you’re wrong. Threats to these are not new. Vitriol, populism and echo chambers all have long histories. But, once again, that doesn’t mean that what’s happening today is just the usual rough-and-tumble of democratic politics. Social media platforms are massively exacerbating the problems — and, once again, it’s corporate decisions, more than the technology itself, that are to blame.

At an Intelligence Squared event in London last November, the American social scientist Jonathan Haidt spoke about ‘the incredible power of social media to activate our tribal sentiments in ways that make democracy unlikely.’ He went on to explain thus:

‘It used to be, when I was growing up, that once a month there’d be a news story about the terrible things Republicans did and we could all talk about how terrible Republicans are. And now, whichever side you’re on, there’s five an hour. If a swastika is drawn on a locker in a junior high school in Illinois, everybody on the left will hear about it. And if an idiot holds up a sign saying “Patriotism is Racism” anywhere in America, everyone on the right will hear about it. And so, everyone is immersed in a river of outrage.’

On the eve of Donald Trump’s election victory, Edward Luce wrote an essay in the FT Magazine called ‘The Age of Vitriol,’ in which he made a similar case:

‘For all its pluses, social media has drowned politics in vitriol. New technology has opened up a galaxy of thought once confined to libraries, but it has also enabled ancient prejudices to seep back into the mainstream — anti-Semitism, for example, and hatred of women. In the past few months, the Twitter hashtags #whitegenocide (the view that whites are endangered by multiculturalism) and #repealthe19th (the US constitution’s 19th amendment gave women the right to vote) have trended heavily.’

Here, once again, the tactics of the alt-right and the business models of Silicon Valley were aligned. When all you care about is the number of clicks, outrage is a powerful engagement tool. And, as Luce points out, when you allow people to hide behind anonymity, it’s much easier for them to hurl abuse.

None of this is to say that the world would be a better place without Facebook and Google — or the technology that enables such companies to exist. Peter Diamandis is right to point to the democratisation of access to information as one of the most profoundly positive features of today’s world — and the corporate titans of the internet age deserve a fair share of the credit for this.

But that’s only half the story. Now that the tech industry’s major players have come of age, it’s time for them to take responsibility for the negative externalities they’re creating. Doing something about these externalities will be immensely difficult, but, fortunately, Silicon Valley’s never been afraid of the seemingly impossible.