Yes, handcuffs will fit Big Tech CEOs
By Mark Hurst • March 25, 2021
As I write these words, three of the most powerful men in the world are getting ready to turn on their camera and dance around the truth. Today's congressional hearing on disinformation (here's the committee page, and here's C-SPAN) will feature the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter - Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey - answering for their companies' role in the January 6 insurrection, among other crimes.
By now the complaint should be familiar. The algorithmic amplification employed by these companies rewards toxic, deceptive, or otherwise harmful content. Disinformation spreads the fastest, and thus yields the most profit, as it maximizes all-important "engagement." For a PR shield, human moderators are paid exploitation-level wages to watch videos of assault, torture, and beheadings so that the CEOs can claim that their companies are "doing something" about the problem. Burning down democracy and civil society sure is profitable!
As you see footage of the CEOs deflecting and dodging questions, keep one thing in mind: The business models of Facebook, Google, and Twitter are fully dependent on amplifying toxic content. And I mean fully dependent. Remove the amplifier and you kill the company. Conversely, leave the amplifier in place and it doesn't matter what you do, adding human moderators or better AI or anything else - the outcomes will be the same.
There is absolutely nothing new here. Almost two years ago, I wrote Toxic Content Has a Simple Solution: Kill the Algorithm, in which I pointed out the obvious: "If the algorithm is the problem, the solution is to kill the algorithm."
And then last May, I wrote The algorithmic amplifier fueling corruption in Silicon Valley, with this warning: "We're headed into some difficult times. Of course, we're already in difficult times - but specifically, the algorithm at the heart of Big Tech, and the corruption it feeds on and amplifies, is only getting stronger."
And then January 6 happened.
As I wrote the next day, in The bright side of insurrection, the Big Tech amplifier is working exactly as designed. Venture capitalist Chris Sacca put it more bluntly in a post directed to Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg: "You've got blood on your hands."
So today we'll hear deceptions, distractions, and most likely some outright perjury. After all, that was the dominant theme of the antitrust hearings last July, where Zuck and Pichai took part. Read This is perjury: the Big Tech hearings, summarized for a reminder of how that went. Why would they behave any differently today?
(courtesy Matthew Rodier)
So here we are, again, getting ready to see Zuck and Pichai and Dorsey dance. You know what would immediately stop the music? Handcuffs.
• Facebook investor Roger McNamee writes in Wired - Wired! - that criminal penalties might get these CEOs' attention: A Better Path to Tech Reform? Felony Charges (March 23, 2021). This echoes Matt Stoller, writing about Big Tech's habitual fraud in Crime Shouldn't Pay: Why Big Tech Executives Should Face Jail (Dec 20, 2020). Not could, but should face jail.
• See also Stanford professor Steve Blank, quoted by Charles Duhigg in the New Yorker ("All it takes is one V.C. doing a perp walk and everyone gets the message"). Or Scott Galloway in his newsletter: "Until there is more competition, meaningful economic penalties, and perp walks, social media firms will continue to do exponentially more harm than Drexel or Enron."
To summarize the above: Handcuffs. Zuck, Pichai, and Dorsey would pay much so more attention.
As for those "researchers and journalists" mentioned in the meme above...
• Here's an excellent one-minute-long video comparing Facebook to lying cigarette executives - from Accountable Tech, which is also running a campaign perfectly directed at turning off the algorithms.
• Will Oremus writes: "The lack of human oversight-the automaticity-is *the* thing that makes Facebook so successful & profitable. It invests in content moderation as triage. But it can never build a moderation system commensurate to the platform's capacity for harm. If it did, the value would vanish." Which is much what Prof. Sarah T. Roberts wrote in Behind the Screen, her book about Big Tech content moderators. (You can listen to my Techtonic interview with Roberts from Sept 2019, in which we cover this exact point.)
• Tech Transparency Project posts that Facebook is "not capable of handling the dangers posed by their platform." Neil Turkewitz goes further, saying that Facebook is just trying to preserve its toxicity.
• Congressman Tom Malinowski points out that "hundreds of militias are still recruiting on Facebook."
And that's, ultimately, the most effective solution. Just dismantle Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It's easy. All we have to do is remove the algorithmic amplifier at the heart of each of these companies, and then - poof. We can put the handcuffs on the CEOs when they're ready to leave the building and walk into the northern California sunshine, in front of the camera crews, waiting patiently outside.
Until next time,
- Mark Hurst
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