Big Tech vs. The Election

Big Tech vs. The Election

“Liberate Michigan!” Trump tweeted that, while denouncing Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and he also posted it on Twitter and Facebook.

Now, the Michigan FBI has charged 13 men, members of militia groups, with conspiring to stage a violent overthrow of the government, initiating civil war, conducting firearms training, testing explosives and tactical drills, and kidnapping—for a treason trial—Governor Whitmer, allegedly because she was controlling the reopening of gyms due to the spread of the coronavirus. The Governor stated, “Just last week, the President of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these Michigan militia groups. When our leaders speak, their words matter.”

While Facebook and Twitter are not directly to blame for this, they were super spreaders of the virus behind it, as surely as Trump has become a super spreader of COVID-19—and the rallying cry “Liberate Michigan!” is still up on Facebook. I know. I just checked.

The (national) FBI has declared right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and their violent domestic terrorism the most serious national security threats facing the United States today. It’s no secret that the right wing has been dominant on Facebook, creating a tsunami of viral commentary that drowns out liberal opposition and even mainstream media, resulting in a parallel media universe that progressive Facebook users never encounter but which is highly effective. It’s no mystery why right-wing content succeeds on Facebook. “The platform was designed to amplify emotionally charged posts, and conservative commentators are skilled at turning passionate grievances into powerful algorithm fodder,” as Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times. Facebook willingly bends its rules for popular conservatives: its executives have removed “strikes” from high-profile conservative pages that were sharing viral misinformation, and have regularly made exceptions for Trump’s posts, even when they violated Facebook’s own rules.

It took three years for Facebook to finally ban Q-Anon, and in the interim the conspiracy theory went global. Q-Anon is wildly popular on the political right, with more than 70 GOP candidates embracing some elements of it while one, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is virtually guaranteed to win a seat in Congress this November. Q-Anon has played a key role in spreading disinformation, from Pizzagate to inciting violence against peaceful demonstrators in Kenosha, from Covid 19 and vaccines that might address it to the supposed dangers of 5G cellular technology. Facebook took limited action in August to restrain Q-Anon (the “Ooooo direct appeals for violence are naughty” approach) but went no further to curb messages that use the amplification power of mainstream platforms to reach many more people. We’re talking about a conspiracy theory “movement” that’s proliferated from anonymous message boards in October 2017 with insane allegations that Democratic officials and Hollywood celebrities were raping and eating children—and Trump was the only one who could save us from such evil.

The sheer scale of Facebook makes this imperative for us to understand. As of 2019, 70 percent of American adults used Facebook and 43 percent of Americans got their news from it (Pew Research Center), and these figures have increased because of the pandemic. It doesn’t end there: 10 years ago, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization were Exxon Mobile, General Electric, Citigroup, Shell Oil, and Microsoft. Today, only Microsoft remains in the top five, where it’s been joined by Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google). All tech companies, each dominating its corner of the industry. Google has a whopping 88 percent market share in search advertising.

Now finally, too little too late: on 6 October, Facebook imposed new sanctions on Q-Anon, removing affiliated groups and pages even if they don’t incite violence or traffic in hate speech. Now, Facebook announces it will act against posts that dissuade people from voting. Really? Now? They’re also “looking into” removing posts that suggest people go to polling places armed and with an intention to intimidate—but those notices won’t be removed retroactively, oh no. Guy Rosen, who wears the ridiculous job label Facebook Vice President for Integrity, pouts, “We believe we’ve done more than any other company.” Mark Zuckerberg complains that the amount of money spent on “securing” Facebook exceeded its entire revenue of roughly $5.1 billion during its first year as a public company in 2012. Oh Mark, my heart bleeds.

Behind this is Zuckerberg’s fanatic belief in supporting “unfettered speech.” Libertarian in his bones, he’s brandished “freedom of speech” to defend falsehoods, disinformation, and outright lies, conveniently unaware that the First Amendment protects us from government interference in our political speech—like King George III did before our Revolution—not speech about, for example, violent pornography, violent political action, or other kinds of violent propaganda, speech pushed by private enterprises. Silicon Valley has doubled down on its refusal to act as “an arbiter of truth” even as disinformation with perilous consequences runs rampant across its platforms. Mainstream social media companies permitted the growth of conspiracy theories in part because they wanted to consider it authentic political speech at a time when Trump and other Republicans were bashing them for alleged bias against conservatives. They also whine that right-wing messaging changes quickly and networks of supporters build an audience with one message and then pivot to another. Gee, they complain, they can’t possibly monitor all this. Yet they now monitor child pornography well enough—once they’d lost the fight to make it illegal.

Look, Facebook is hardly alone in its malevolent greed. Google has just announced that it too will ban all political and issue ads after election day. WTF? People are already voting! These tech giants have always done the least they could at the last they dared. Then Facebook and Google have done it even later. Or they do it but don’t penalize those who post such poison to begin with. Or they do it but allow them back on the platform under other names. Or they do it but claim they’re not a publisher, merely a platform.

What then? scream our adversaries. Should the government regulate everything? Do you want to go back to living in caves? Well, is regulation so hideous when we have seatbelts in our cars, or red stop lights or, for that matter, driver’s licenses? Or required education for our children? Or no lead in our water (except in Flint, MI)? Major newspapers in this country abide by the Three Sources Rule. Back when the FCC had some teeth in it, Fox News would never have gotten away with its signature disinformation.

And all the while, Big Tech is amassing its real products: you and me. As in the great dystopic novel, we are Soylent Green. Brian X. Chen, consumer technology reporter for The New York Times, wrote a chilling piece in April, 2018, in which he noted, in part, “[M]y Facebook file was like Pandora’s box. Facebook had my entire phonebook, including the number to ring my apartment buzzer… they kept a permanent record of the people I had deleted from my friends’ list over the last 14 years, including my exes.… data I found objectionable could not be removed… data was kept around to eventually help brands serve targeted ads. … ” Chen notes that even the above isn’t as creepy as the number of advertisers that have his information on their databases– “a list of roughly 500 brands,” the overwhelming majority of which he had never interacted with. The data sets for Google were exponentially larger than his Facebook data; for his personal email account alone, Google’s archive of his data measured 8 GB. Moreover, in a folder labeled “Ads,” Google kept a history of the news articles he had read – because the sites had loaded ads served by Google. Chen ended his article writing, “Be warned.”

So, OK, never mind that they smother innovation because their platforms are now the point of access to all media for the majority of Americans. Never mind that their profits soar while revenues in newspaper publishing have since 2001 fallen by 70 percent. Leave aside Facebook’s intrusion into your privacy and the way its algorithms search out your every secret contact and desire. Never mind blaming Russia for sabotaging our elections by hacking when actually the Russians were just availing themselves of Facebook’s platform. Leave aside that billions of dollars have been reallocated from creators of content to owners of monopoly platforms, and that all content creators who are dependent on advertising have to negotiate with the gate-keepers, Google or Facebook, the only ways in which they can communicate with the world. I should say we can communicate with the world, because how else would I let you know that I have a podcast or I write a blog or publish a book?

But adding insult to injury, Facebook recently took out a page ad in The New York Times in their just-us-folks tone, that they’re accountable on combating foreign election interference (SO not true, and what about domestic?), protecting people’s privacy and data (translation: by selling it), and enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms (actually possibly true because the mega tech giants control the platforms anyway). My God, all just so Mark Zuckerberg could get girls, back when he was a nerdy student! All this so Sheryl Sandberg, under the pretense of feminism, could preach to women that we should “lean in,” that it’s our own fault if we’re not advancing more aggressively in some megacorporation. The ad would be funny, if this was funny. But there’s nothing witty about suggesting Democrats promised riots and murders surrounding the election and then provocatively asking how pro-Trumpers will respond. There’s nothing humorous about calling for “armies for Trump” to poll watch in states with open carry gun laws. There’s nothing hilarious about mortal threats to individuals, our privacy, our democracy.

So what do we do about Facebook and Google–and oh yes YouTube, which has more and more become a home for the hard right. And yes, Amazon, and even Apple. (I didn’t have space to get to everyone.) I realize that we must get rid of Trump before we can do anything constructive. Still, we can have plans in place to start educating consumers. Here are a range of suggestions and straws at which to grasp.
1) Monopolies are created by acquisition: Facebook buys Instagram and WhatsApp; Google buys Double-Click; Amazon buys Audible, etc. For starters (and at minimum), these companies should not be allowed to acquire other firms, like Spotify or SnapChat. If they’re too huge to regulate, then they should be broken up.
2) Regulate a company like Google as a public utility; require it to license out patents for a nominal fee, for its search algorithms, advertising exchanges, and other key innovations. Require that it do research, as Bell Labs did when AT&T was regulated–producing the transistor, the microchip, the microwave, the laser, and cellular telephony, plus 8 Nobel prizes–in the public interest.
3) Remove the”Safe Harbor” clause in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Nice-sounding name, “safe harbor”; disastrous intent. “Safe Harbor” allows companies like Facebook and Google’s YouTube to free-ride on content produced by others. Removing the Safe Harbor provision would force social networks to pay for the content posted on their sites instead of practicing, well, piracy. Just one example: one million downloads of a song on iTunes would yield the performer and her record label about $900,000. One million in streams of that same song on YouTube would earn them only about $900. Same with authors. Same with anyone creative. What’s even more Frankensteinian: these companies are already researching algorithms that will compose music, write songs and books, and produce “art” at no cost—with no pesky living artists involved.
4) Here’s another one for the “Safe Harbor” clause: you know the real reason there are hundreds of thousands of hate-speech videos on YouTube, many with ads that yield revenue for those who posted them, all of them aimed at radicalizing impressionable men? It’s not that white supremacists and haters are brilliant. It’s that YouTube doesn’t have to take responsibility for content on its network. You know the real reason Hillary hasn’t been sitting in the Oval Office but Donald Trump squats there like a toad? Russian bots ran (still run!) wild on Facebook and Twitter, who take their rubles with no culpability or liability for what their platforms are launching.
5) Tech companies should form a consortium to lock in standards across platforms. For a start, they could look to the work of the Election Integrity Partnership, which built a framework for grading Big Tech’s election security policies and has determined that few platforms have such policies. There’s a precedent for this: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft united in 2016 to combat extremist content using unique digital fingerprints to flag videos, pictures, and memes promoting terrorist ideologies and acts. Remember, negative beats positive and all attention looks good to an algorithm. So the same thing can be done with domestic terrorism.
6) Back up your lawmakers. For too long, Republicans fought Big Tech because they thought it was run by leftist ponytailed hippies (even after the hippies became billionaires). For too long, Democrats fell into paroxysms of tech-optimism, as if Silicon Valley would solve everything (and save the economy, too). But now, a 450-page report, capping a 15-month investigation by the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee’s anti-trust subcommittee, has found that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have engaged in anti-competitive, monopoly-style tactics to evolve into four of the world’s most powerful corporate behemoths. Investigators propose the most sweeping overhaul of anti-trust law in decades.

In short, it ain’t over till it’s over. Resistance is not futile. We can reclaim these innovations from their corporate bosses. Meanwhile, hug your privacy, stay curious but become vigilant, cherish our democracy, and vote—in person, early if possible, or by mail—but vote. We have intelligence, stubbornness, patience, urgency, vision, humor—and each other. We can do this.

This blog will return week after next.