SAN FRANCISCO – Is Mark Zuckerberg really in control of Facebook? Or is he a sorcerer’s apprentice that cannot handle the invention? Virtually every month now, new controversies emerge swirling around Facebook. With its 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook has grown from a pet project started in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm to become far more than a social networking platform.
It has morphed into a huge news, entertainment and advertising platform with 2 billion users that is viewed by more people than any U.S. or European television network, any newspaper or magazine and any online news outlet.
In view of all the scandals and the company’s very slow responses, we are left with a daunting question: Do Zuckerberg and his computer geniuses really understand their own creation?
Facebook’s artificial intelligence has been built (or more accurately, cobbled together) over several years by hundreds of different developers and programmers. Professor Zeynep Tufekci of Harvard University describes the Facebook algorithm as “giant matrices, maybe millions of rows and columns, and not even the programmers understand anymore how exactly it is operating.”
There are so many variables that go into its complex and proprietary sorting that Facebook cannot say with authority why something will or will not appear in a user’s news feed.
Nevertheless, a number of experts have been closely observing this company and have figured out a few of its behavioral patterns. Combined with recent revelations from a whistleblower, here’s what we have learned about how Facebook and its algorithms actually work. It is even more alarming than anyone thought.
Facebook’s “engagement algorithms” use technological surveillance of our online behavior to capture our personal data in a way that would have made East Germany’s Stasi drool with envy. The goal is to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most influenced by.
The platform is specifically designed to keep users clicking, tapping and scrolling down a bottomless feed, and in the process deliver us to various advertisers. Sean Parker, the company’s first president, recently called this “a social-validation feedback loop.”
But that’s not all. Based on our individual profiles, the Facebook engagement algorithms are also designed to feed us sensationalist news (both fake and real) selected to provoke powerful emotions of anger and fear. By reacting to, clicking on and sharing these stories, users are herded by the Facebook “persuasion architecture” into hyper-partisan information ghettos of opinion and alternative facts, referred to as “cognitive bubbles.”
In other words, we the public are the guinea pigs for Facebook’s algorithmic experiments.
One outrageous example was the false conspiracy theory blasted around Facebook during the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair ran a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington.
Besides the fact that the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, doesn’t even have a basement, the restaurant’s staff and its owner were hit with a fusillade of abuse and death threats on social media.
Matters went from alarming to dangerous when a man walked into Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle and began shooting (fortunately no one was injured). That was just one of dozens of fake news stories, all of them with absurd story lines.
A BuzzFeed News analysis found that 17 of the 20 top-performing false election stories were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Clinton. In the last three months of the campaign, top fake election news stories generated nearly 9 million Facebook engagements, which was 20 percent greater than the number received by election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
Europe has long operated by the “precautionary principle,” which is like the Hippocratic oath in medicine that says, “First, do no harm.” The products and services being created by Facebook and the other Silicon Valley companies have enjoyed widespread access to European markets and consumers.
Europeans have great faith in an open internet, but the pitfalls of this over-optimism are becoming more and more apparent. Now that Facebook has grown into a large global monopoly, a major media platform for the entire planet, it has become less benign and is raising more alarm bells.
A European model platform?
Many people have long lamented “Where is the European Facebook and Google?” One answer is that the Silicon Valley platform companies are busy buying up everything that emerges as an alternative, killing off competition.
Now is the time for some European start-ups to come together, with seed money from the EU and/or individual governments. Europeans need to create a new version of Facebook (and Google and Amazon) that incorporates European values. Call it Facebook 2.0. China has accomplished this — why can’t Europe?
At this point, a kind of renationalization of the internet seems natural and almost inevitable. Not least because Europeans cannot seriously rely on U.S. authorities to rein in Facebook and Silicon Valley. Concepts of privacy and corporate accountability are just too different. This is a showdown between Europe’s social capitalism and America’s Wall Street-Silicon Valley capitalism.
Nations and regional blocs like the EU and China must each reconfigure the internet in ways that work for their populations, their values and their future needs.
Currently, these platform companies seem to exist everywhere and want to be held accountable nowhere. One idea that has been discussed is that of turning these kinds of services into public utilities. Another is that of breaking them up as overly big monopolies.
Yet another option is that of requiring digital licenses that map out the rules and regulations of operation for internet-based platforms, much in the way that traditional brick-and-mortar companies must be granted business permits and licenses.
The evolution of the digital age is proceeding rapidly, and just as in bygone eras when oil, phone and Microsoft monopolies eventually needed to be yoked, it is time to figure out the right digital harness for these platform companies.
The alternative is to leave the standards and norms that will rule the future to be defined by these Frankenstein companies from Silicon Valley.
Steven Hill is a journalist, a former senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “Europe’s Promise.”
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