Senators and flamethrowers
By Mark Hurst • April 29, 2021

I'm going to tell a story. Earlier this week the Senate held a hearing on algorithmic amplification in which executives from Facebook, Google/YouTube, and Twitter all defended their companies' policy of amplifying some content over others, all in the name of growth and profit. It was an important hearing, but the content was a little dry.

So to make it a little more interesting, I'll explain the Senate hearing as a story. Here it goes.

Mr. FaceTube's shiny flamethrower

A town out there somewhere has a problem of houses burning down. Every other morning, it seems, the townspeople wake up to find another neighbor's house turned into a smoldering pile, a mess of embers and smoke where the house was just the day before. After a few of these incidents, the fire department discovers the telltale marks of a flamethrower. Someone has been setting the houses on fire.

There's only one person around who owns a flamethrower, and he's the richest person in town. His name is Bro FaceTube. Used to be an OK guy, a little annoying perhaps but tolerable, until it all changed. He somehow figured out how to make money by burning things down. Right after that he bought his stupid flamethrower, and as I said, now people's houses are burning down with terrifying regularity. Meantime, Bro FaceTube is getting richer and richer.

So one day, the town elders decide they've had enough of houses burning down, and they call Bro FaceTube to the courthouse to question him. FaceTube shows up holding his flamethrower, as always. He caresses the thing while he talks. It's gross.

"Mr. FaceTube," begins the chief elder, "is it true that you've been burning down people's houses?"

FaceTube looks up from his flamethrower, which he had been admiring, and says: "I think we can all agree that openness is important. Also, puppies. So cute and fluffy."

"FaceTube," says the elder, "that has nothing to do with my question. Did you burn down people's houses?"

"It is a truly sad occurrence when anyone's house burns down," says Bro FaceTube, "and I am committed to reducing the number of burns."

"Did you say 'reducing'?" asks the elder. "We'd really rather not see any houses burn down."

FaceTube flashes his condescending smile, amused that the elder would suggest that a flamethrower not burn down houses. But FaceTube plays along: "I completely agree. Again, being totally open here."

Now another elder speaks up. "Bro FaceTube," she says, irritated, "look around our town and you'll see a burned-out landscape. Houses flattened, people out of work and unable to pay for repairs, and the problem is getting worse. That flamethrower has made you the richest person in town, even as you ruin people's lives."

All eyes are on FaceTube. But he was ready for this question. He had practiced, yes, perfected his response before coming here.

"I want to say to the elders," begins FaceTube, "first of all, how much it pains me to see the devastation of a burned-down house. And that's why I am so proud to show you -" and here he holds up the flamethrower, all chrome and plastic, glinting faintly in the courthouse light - "all of the new safety features I have added to my innovation."

"Excuse me," the second elder tries to interject. But Bro FaceTube, raising his voice, interrupts her to continue the demonstration: "This, if I may, this is the new toggle that temporarily reduces the range of the flames. And this, just next to it" - here he points to a glowing blue button - "this is the new 'House Safety' button, which shoots the flames in a more gentle, less direct pattern."

FaceTube continues pointing out new buttons, toggles, and switches for a few minutes, trying to deflect the conversation away from the fires, and toward the "safety features."

Now nearing the end of the session, a third elder asks: "Mr. FaceTube, could you just answer directly, do you make money from burning down houses?"

"No, of course not," says FaceTube easily. "Our business is safety, as you can see from all of these new features."

Everyone in the courtroom knows this answer is deceptive, what in normal conversation would be considered an outright lie. If FaceTube didn't directly make money from the burns, it was common knowledge that such destruction had enabled FaceTube's moneymaking for years. The flamethrower is central to the profit engine of Bro FaceTube. The elders know it, Bro FaceTube knows it, and so do the people living amidst the ash and embers littering the town.

The session over, the chief elder leaves the courtroom reflecting on the irony: In spite of all of the destruction from Bro FaceTube's shiny flamethrower, no one has managed to stop him.

Yet. ☀

(by Erin FitzGibbon)

Links from the hearings

The story above is true. Watch the Senate hearings, or click through the links below:

Jack Poulson shows how Facebook's VP for Content Policy abruptly dodged a question she - and the Senator - and everyone in Silicon Valley - already know the answer to.

Yael Eisenstat put it more bluntly: "She just outright lied." Eisenstat should know: she's a former Facebook employee. (Testimony was under oath, so lying is perjury, the same crime I wrote about after last July's hearings.)

Jason Kint cites The Markup, showing that the Facebook exec, for a second time, seems to have engaged in a wee bit of perjury. (More from Julia Angwin.)

Color Of Change describes the Google/YouTube flamethrower: "It’s clear from this hearing that Big Tech algorithms like YouTube’s recommendation software prioritize $$ over everything, and they’ll keep enabling the spread of false, hateful, and racist content to stay in control over our digital lives and maximize their profits."

Chris Gilliard explains Facebook's pyromania this way: "Facebook is basically an arsonist that applies a fresh coat of paint to one side of the house while simultaneously putting a blowtorch to the other side."

Tech Transparency Project shows the Facebook flamethrower in action, as the Suggested Pages algorithm recommends militia groups.

Karen Hao reports in detail how the Facebook flamethrower was built, and why superficial initiatives like “Responsible AI” have no effect. As Hao puts it, “Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth.”

Joan Donovan gave the best testimony of the hearings, saying "misinformation at scale is a feature of social media, not a bug" - and listing four ways to address the flamethrowing from Facebook, Google/YouTube, and Twitter.

Chris Gilliard points us to an article in The Guardian: Facebook allows ad targeting of children as young as 13 by the “interested in” categories like “extreme weight loss,” “alcohol,” and “gambling.” Remind me: why is this company allowed to exist?

Two quotes from the Google/YouTube executive defending the flamethrower that pays her salary:

• "YouTube's mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world." My response: Last week's column.

• "We want YouTube to be a place where a diversity of viewpoints are heard." Ah yes, that diversity of viewpoints, like the Flat Earther epidemic that YouTube helped create.

Finally, this post by LibrarianShipwreck is the best analysis I've read of the Senate hearings, focusing on the role of Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology.

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With all the news about Facebook, Google, and Twitter, some people are hoping to be rescued by another Big Tech company - Apple. And CEO Tim Cook is happy to play the part in his public appearances, often joining his hands as if in prayer. Let me be clear: we're not going to be rescued by another Big Tech company. Praying to Apple won't do anything.

Instead, I hope you'll join Creative Good as a member. It's a new community for making tech better. Official announcement coming soon.

Comment on this column: Members can access the Creative Good Forum and discuss this column here. (We had a great discussion on last week's column, too.) Join us!

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst

Read my non-toxic tech reviews at Good Reports (see the new entry on Best tech podcasts)
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Twitter: @markhurst

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