Big Tech’s cosmetic changes ahead of the 2020 election are mere smokescreens. These Silicon Valley firms remain supersized and divisive actors in contemporary political discourse (if we can even call it ‘discourse’ anymore). These social media firms basically admitted the disservices they’ve knowingly peddled to us through our devices when they overhauled their advertising policies ahead of Tuesday’s presidential election.
But beware: Social media algorithms are still on the prowl. And they, seemingly, won’t stop until they manipulate you into hating family members, friends, or acquaintances who – in reality – are guilty only of clicking on different links than you.
“You start to think, ‘How can those people be so stupid? Look at all this information that I’m constantly seeing, how are they not seeing that same information?’” Justin Rosenstein, the former Facebook entrepreneur who ‘gave’ humanity the ‘like’ button while employed at the bubble that is Menlo Park, says. “And the answer is: they’re not seeing that same information.”
That’s the terrifying contemporary reality: social media has Americans literally consuming two different portrayals of the same world.
Rosenstein left Facebook in 2008, and is now a part of another venture making Wall Street salivate. His quote comes from “The Social Dilemma” – a new Netflix documentary about the pitfalls of social media. The docu-drama, which director Jeff Orlowski dropped earlier this fall, is particularly eye-opening, because it’s told through the lens of a now regret-filled cast of former subtle giants of Silicon Valley.
The gist: it’s truly worse than you think.
Most of us have now, even if unwittingly, ceded much of our autonomy to Silicon Valley firms and their meticulously polished and expertly crafted algorithms that do our thinking for us. Sure, that sounds preposterous, but it’s not. It’s the system working. Because once we allow our data to be mined, these algorithms do what they’re designed to do: keep us locked into our screens. To do that Big Tech designed a system that gently guides users – through ‘recommendations’ and the like – into ‘like-minded’ groups, which in practice means syphoning people into insular digital worlds that sometimes bear no resemblance to reality.
Facebook works “the same way you would be manipulated by a magician. A magician shows your card tricks, says, ‘pick a card, any card.’ What you don’t realize was that they’ve done a setup, so you pick the card they want you to pick. And that’s how Facebook works,” Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook, says in the documentary. “Facebook sits there and says, ‘hey, you pick your friends, you pick the links that you follow.’ But that’s all nice; it’s just like the magician: Facebook is in charge of your newsfeed.”
This is how America, only of late, trapped ourselves in this loop of hyper-partisan idiocracy. It’s not just reality TV; it’s our tech-sugar daddies.
Yet here, even the highly respected (for the moment at least…) PEW Research Center goes out of its way to note this historic anomaly: “Trump approval more polarized than for any other president since Eisenhower,” their headline from this August reads.
You don’t agree with your lovers, like-minded coworkers, or even friends as much as most Americans now innately agree – even in the face of distortions, half-truths, and whole lies – with whatever is being pushed by their chosen party on any given day.
“Since we all are operating on a different set of facts, when that happens at scale you’re no longer able to reconcile with or even consume information that contradicts with that worldview that you’ve created,” Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at A.I. Now Institute and a professor at NYU School of Law, argues. “That means we aren’t actually being objective, constructive individuals.”
The problem stems from these algorithms having almost unfettered access to most all of our data. Unlike our European allies, the American system leaves us seemingly powerless from the moment we boot up a new device for the first time, log-in and then start clicking “Accept” on all the small print. Across the Atlantic, our friends are truly empowered individuals: they get to opt-in to being tracked, while here in the ‘Live Free or Die’-States-of-America, we have to opt-out of becoming commodities – and wholly known, followed, monitored, spied on ones at that – that Silicon Valley’s brightest view as test dummies for their ever evolving social experiment.
We’re trained to think these algorithms are flawless and understand us better than even we do, but Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer, says that’s a convenient myth we’ve sold ourselves (with the help of Silicon Valley algorithms, of course).
“The algorithm is actually trying to find a few rabbit holes that are very powerful and try to find which rabbit hole is the closest to your interests,” Chaslot contends. “And then if you start watching one of those videos it will be recommended over and over again.”
Just four years ago, an online conspiracy led a North Carolina man to trek hundreds of miles to a family friendly restaurant here in the nation’s capital. Then, while children were playing ping pong, he opened fire on the establishment’s locks with his AR-15. He was doing a righteous deed; at least according to the online conspiracy theories that Facebook directed him and countless hundreds of thousands – and potentially even millions – of people to, as if #Pizzagate was reality.
That whole terrifying fiasco was sponsored by Silicon Valley. While they’re the easiest whipping boy, they’re by no means outliers.
Many of us – this professor included – rolled our eyes around this gloriously round world when we heard NBA star Kyrie Irving had endorsed the flat earth conspiracy, even as NASA has gone out of its way for decades to teach us all that indeed, Galileo was right: the earth is a sphere.
Still, facts don’t matter when your brain is assaulted by Silicon Valley manipulators. Even Irving was caught off guard when he finally realized he’d been duped into going down a purposefully constructed “rabbit hole.” It wasn’t bunnies that constructed that black hole: It was YouTube.
“The flat earth conspiracy theory was recommended hundreds of millions of times based on the algorithm,” Chaslot sympathetically says from a place of knowledge, after helping engineer YouTube’s manipulation machine in a past life. “It’s easy to think that it’s just a few stupid people who get convinced, but the algorithm is getting smarter and smarter every day. So today, they’re convincing the people that the earth is flat, but tomorrow they will be convincing you of something.”
Twitter is also a culprit. For years now their business model – which is enshrined in their deceptively mysterious algorithms – has all but forced users into a false reality of their own making. As former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris points out in “The Social Dilemma,” a MIT study from 2018 revealed ‘fake news’ spreads, on average, some six times faster than real news.
“What is that world gonna look like when one has a six times advantage than the other?” a bewildered Harris asks.
He’s not alone.
“They tilt the floor of human behavior. They make some behavior harder and some easier, and you’re always free to walk up the hill but fewer people do,” Aza Raskin, a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and Earth Species Project, says. “And so, at scale – the society scale – you really are just tilting the floor and changing what billions of people do.”
“We created a system that biases towards false information; not because you want to, but because false information makes the companies more money. And the truth – truth is boring,” Harris says. “It’s a disinformation for profit business model, you make money, the more you allow unregulated messages to reach anyone for the best price.”
Put another way, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and the like allegedly make Trillions of dollars off spreading and even force feeding lies to all of us.
Some politicians have gotten this but not many. Last year Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) unleashed what any good farmer would say as the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony about Big Tech’s intrusion into people’s minds, tastes, and – of course – their politics.
Watch the hearing on Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms here.
“I’m probably going to be dead and gone – and I’m probably thankful for it – when all of this shit comes to fruition,” Tester told witnesses, including Harris. “This scares me to death.”
It should scare you to death too, especially those of us who have gotten into bitter fights with friends or who have dismissed or banished family members over political disagreements.
I’m a political communications professor and a 14-year veteran of the congressional press corps, so I know politics. And politics – at least its former core – is people. And these algorithms have enabled, even encouraged, many of us to forget about the people right next to us, and instead cling to political tribes that benefit from the vitriol.
Contentious political issues rake in millions for both of today’s dominant political parties, so politicians of all stripes foment them. They’ve been doing that for centuries. But we’re now in the early stages of a vicious, potentially deadly storm as partisan fundraising goals are perfectly aligning with deceptive Silicon Valley software. Sadly, people seem left out of the algorithms, even when employed by well-intentioned politicians.
So in this election season, consider bucking the system and do the opposite of what these multi-billion dollar tech firms want you to do: Please, just listen to someone you disagree with. Reach out to a family member or friend who you’ve lost touch with – or blew up at – over politics run amok. Never forget: their heart is the same as yours and mine. It’s all of our minds that have been distorted by Silicon Valley.