Calling the culprits by name
By Mark Hurst • December 10, 2020
What will we say in years to come, when we look back on 2020? I'm wondering what word we'll settle on. "Challenging" and "unprecedented" seem overused. Some people have expressed their experience of 2020 through humor, sometimes very grim humor. I compiled some of this humor in April, May, July, and September, though with mounting pandemic deaths and economic destruction, the gloom has deepened.
So I was delighted to see, yesterday, some genuinely good news. Really good news. The kind that might possibly change, just a little, our otherwise bleak assessment of 2020. The news is that Facebook is being sued. Twice. Both the FTC and a group of 48 state attorneys general have declared that Facebook is an illegal monopoly.
There are many reasons to celebrate here, chief among them the government's public statement - at last - of Facebook's illegality. Matt Stoller put it best in The End of the Facebook Crime Spree (my emphasis added):
What Mark Zuckerberg did at Facebook is engage in systemic criminal behavior, and he was able to do so because law enforcers refused to enforce the law against the powerful. That era is over.
If you've been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know that I agree with Stoller. Back in July I documented the multiple instances of perjury - a federal crime - committed on-camera by the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple during the Senate hearings that month. The CEOs all lied, under oath, about their companies' illegal behavior. Crime upon crime. This led me to post:
Yesterday's hearings convinced me that the Big Tech companies are criminal operations.
I'm highlighting the criminal nature of these enterprises because we're entering a moment when Big Tech and its apologists and enablers will shout their defense. "You just don't like successful companies!" "As though anything that gets big needs to be torn down!" "Only technocrats truly understand how the new economy works!" These responses come from people in the pay of Big Tech: consultants, researchers, "thought leaders," as well as employees of the companies themselves. (For a deeper dive: two other emerging defenses are "Antitrust is gonna be hard to prove" and "What about China" - see Jack Poulson's thread.)
We need to be clear: what's at issue here is not the size of these tech giants, it's their behavior. And the best way to understand the behavior of a technology, and the company that made it, is to listen to people outside the company and its pay. (I wrote an entire book teaching how to listen in this way.)
As the editor of an independent editorial site, Brooke Binkowski directly experienced Facebook's behavior. She described it in this thread:
Facebook, which absolutely devastated my industry by supplying phony metrics about video vs. text, arbitrarily throttling page reach, going after fact-checkers who didn't do exactly what they wanted and personally smearing them, now has concerns about the bUsInEsS cOmMuNitY
Facebook, which is responsible for at least two genocides now -- Myanmar, Kashmir -- and which lies with abandon about doing anything at all to combat destructive and corrosive disinformation, now has concerns about integrity and rEvIsIoNiSt hIsToRy
I'm sorry, I spoke in anger. Facebook was not entirely responsible. They just take persistent societal problems that needed addressing -- racism, intergenerational conflicts -- and push them into real-world ultraviolence with inflammatory disinformation targeted via algorithm.
That's a pretty stark assessment on a number of angles. I wonder if we can sum it all up in a word: what do we call a company that traffics in fraudulent metrics, that amplifies hate for profit, that has led directly to mass murder? Oh and, yes, illegally kills off competition to its monopoly? The word "criminal" is a polite way of putting it.
We could also call it "Google."
The New Zealand government released a report this week about the 2019 attack at a mosque in Christchurch. The report concludes that the attacker "was driven by an extreme right-wing Islamophobic ideology." According to the Guardian, "The report also found the terrorist was radicalised on YouTube, the Google-owned video sharing platform." This observation, that YouTube's algorithm led to radicalization, was an official conclusion of a government report that was meticulously researched and reviewed for 20 months. It's for real.
And yet Google has suffered no repercussions. As I posted, "YouTube's hate-for-profit algorithm led directly to mass murder. No one from Google went to prison, and today the company is making more money than ever."
Our society just seems to be numb right now: partly from the pandemic and other crises, and partly from the sheer scale and duration of unthinkable behavior from the Big Tech cartel, the most powerful companies in our economy. Looking at the news just this week, and just from Facebook and Google, we have ample evidence - again - of the algorithm fueling corruption, as I wrote back in May. It can be disheartening to see this still happening in December.
And that's why the good news yesterday is so welcome. Because things have changed: the antitrust lawsuits have, at last, shown us the best word to sum up these enterprises.
For the moment, let's celebrate. We've called the culprits by their name, and 2021 looks brighter already.
Until next time,
- Mark Hurst
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