In a telling story of our times, both Google and Facebook came under heavy fire for serious accusations these weeks, only to release quarterly earnings that show that together they generated US$93-billion in sales in just three months!
The company run by Mark Zuckerberg has been under siege after the release of leaked internal documents by whistleblower Frances Haughen, which demonstrated the company knew of serious problems with its platforms including the spread of misinformation, incitement to violence, human-trafficking, and even a lack of local control of these issues and the firm’s operations in most countries around the world, including several high-risk nations where civil war and even ethnic cleansing had been occurring. What was Mark’s response? Re-brand the company “Meta” and try to sound innovative by announcing a pivot from social media to the multiverse, dismissing the “Facebook Papers” as a “coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.”
Google/Alphabet has managed to fly below the radar thanks to CEO Sundar Pichai’s moves. Yet, a complaint unsealed by a New York judge paints a pretty damning picture, showing how the biggest player in the digital space used its market power to squash the competition while having secret meetings with the likes of Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft to kill privacy-related regulation.
These issues shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers of this column, but the release of documents showing these things occurred and management was aware of them helps to debunk the myth of the Silicon Valley giants working for the general benefit of society and making massive profits as a consequence. Of course, this isn’t to say that Google, Facebook and the rest of the major tech companies haven’t done a lot to improve the lot of a substantial portion of the human population, but their continued growth and evolution requires critical scrutiny and some sort of framework to reduce negative externalities.
Zuckerberg is the perfect tech-billionaire-bad-guy. The foundational story of his company has painted him as a ruthless entrepreneur with unmatched ambition, while his successive public appearances as one of the most powerful CEOs in the world have revealed a disciplined, laser-focused, “robot.” He’s almost “not human” to the point where he’s sparked an Internet conspiracy dubbing him a “lizard person.” Facebook has faced a series of public scandals, the biggest having been Cambridge Analytica until now.
The “Facebook Papers” scandal comes at a very different time for Facebook and Zuckerberg, with both having been in the spotlight for at least the past five years since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and with the increased pressure of the blood reaching the river in the United States. Donald Trump’s ascent into the presidency, the level of polarisation and aggressiveness of the public discourse, and, of course, the riots in which a group of overweight white men raided the Capitol Building in Washington in order to disrupt the democratic process, has definitely changed the public perception of Facebook. Whistleblower Haughen’s leak corroborates what had been suggested for years by anecdotal evidence and reporting: Facebook and its social media products have certain troubling side effects tied to the power of attraction of the platforms and the billions of people that use it. These go from mental-health issues with teenagers to incitement of violence without any sort of centralised control in countries where people were being killed, exacerbating the effect. Zuckerberg’s company has nearly 70,000 employes, a 20 percent increase year-over-year, yet it couldn’t hire “language experts” in the three highest-risk countries according to its own research (Myanmar, Pakistan, Ethiopia), in only six of ten “tier one” countries and in zero “tier two” countries. That means that a vast majority of the globe has no localised content moderation. This is but one of several major issues revealed by the leaked documents.
Zuckerberg’s response? Change the conversation. In his announcement where he said that Facebook would now be called Meta and that it would report financial results separating its applications business — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp — from its metaverse division called Reality Labs. A discussion regarding whether Zuck’s vision of what the metaverse will look like — a series of interconnected digital experiences that will go from web to virtual reality and will span everything from gaming to work — is interesting and valuable given their capacity to shape the future of the digital world. Yet, with Meta causing so much harm to so many people, it is troubling to see the Facebook founder and CEO brush them off as he paints a lovey-dovey, feel-good picture of the future. It is clear that the level of complexity behind managing and supervising content on the Facebook family of products is extreme, yet Zuckerberg simply doesn’t seem interested in it.
When it comes to Alphabet, Google’s holding company, at least they are better at pretending. CEO Pichai is great at explaining why the company’s focus is on improving user experience to the maximum that his algorithms and artificial intelligence allow it. Yet, behind the scenes the company’s top priority continues to be its bottom line.
According to the accusation made by the attorney generals of 16 US states and Puerto Rico, the search giant conspired and colluded to manipulate and consolidate its control of the digital advertising market. Not only did they rig the system in their favour while controlling both sides of the counter (the buy- and the sell-side), they actively sabotaged technologies that increased competition in the ecosystem (header-bidding) , while colluding with Facebook (the second largest player after Google itself) and other Big Tech firms to stifle tack of privacy regulation.
While it may seem like a technical thing that only matters to those in the digital advertising space, these manipulations have a profound impact on the incentive system that fuels the digital ecosystem. Rather than working to improve the end-user experience, Google is conspiring to create an information ecosystem that is corrupt and incentivises the rise of clickbait content, misinformation, and obsession through its multiple products, all of them powered by top-notch AI.
At the end of the day it is becoming more evident that Zuckerberg and the top executives at Alphabet/Google just aren’t interested in solving these underlying issues.