Tech Giants, Once Seen as Saviors, Are Now Viewed as Threats

Facebook, Google and others positioned themselves as bettering the world. But their systems and tools have also been used to undermine democracy. Credit Ali Asaei for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — At the start of this decade, the Arab Spring blossomed with the help of social media. That is the sort of story the tech industry loves to tell about itself: It is bringing freedom, enlightenment and a better future for all mankind.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, proclaimed that this was exactly why his social network existed. In a 2012 manifesto for investors, he said Facebook was a tool to create “a more honest and transparent dialogue around government.” The result, he said, would be “better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

Now tech companies are under fire for creating problems instead of solving them. At the top of the list is Russian interference in last year’s presidential election. Social media might have originally promised liberation, but it proved an even more useful tool for stoking anger. The manipulation was so efficient and so lacking in transparency that the companies themselves barely noticed it was happening.

The election is far from the only area of concern. Tech companies have accrued a tremendous amount of power and influence. Amazon determines how people shop, Google how they acquire knowledge, Facebook how they communicate. All of them are making decisions about who gets a digital megaphone and who should be unplugged from the web.

Their amount of concentrated authority resembles the divine right of kings, and is sparking a backlash that is still gathering force.

“For 10 years, the arguments in tech were about which chief executive was more like Jesus. Which one was going to run for president. Who did the best job convincing the work force to lean in,” said Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Now sentiments are shifting. The worm has turned.”

News is dripping out of Facebook, Twitter and now Google about how their ad and publishing systems were harnessed by the Russians. On Nov. 1, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on the matter. It is unlikely to enhance the companies’ reputations.

Under growing pressure, the companies are mounting a public relations blitz. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, was in Washington this week, meeting with lawmakers and making public mea culpas about how things happened during the election “that should not have happened.” Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, was in Pittsburgh on Thursday talking about the “large gaps in opportunity across the U.S.” and announcing a $1 billion grant program to promote jobs.

Underlying the meet-and-greets is the reality that the internet long ago became a business, which means the companies’ first imperative is to do right by their stockholders.

Ross Baird, president of the venture capital firm Village Capital, noted that when ProPublica tried last month to buy targeted ads for “Jew haters” on Facebook, the platform did not question whether this was a bad idea — it asked the buyers how they would like to pay.

“For all the lip service that Silicon Valley has given to changing the world, its ultimate focus has been on what it can monetize,” Mr. Baird said.

Criticism of tech is nothing new, of course. In a Newsweek jeremiad in 1995 titled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” the astronomer Clifford Stoll pointed out that “every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly” on the Usenet bulletin boards, that era’s Twitter and Facebook.

“The result?” he wrote. “Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

Such complaints, repeated at regular intervals, did not stop the tech world from seizing the moment. Millions and then billions of people flocked to its services. The chief executives were regarded as sages. Disruption was the highest good.

What is different today are the warnings from the technologists themselves. “The monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart,” Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, wrote this week.

Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook engineer, was portrayed in a recent Guardian story as an apostate: Noting that sometimes inventors have regrets, he said he had programmed his new phone to not let him use the social network.

Mr. Rosenstein, a co-founder of Asana, an office productivity start-up, said in an email that he had banned not just Facebook but also the Safari and Chrome browsers, Gmail and other applications.

“I realized that I spend a lot of time mindlessly interacting with my phone in ways that aren’t serving me,” he wrote. “Facebook is a very powerful tool that I continue to use every day, just with more mindfulness.”

Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook engineer, recently said he had programmed his phone to prevent him from using the social network on it. CreditStephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Web Summit

If social media is on the defensive, Mr. Zuckerberg is particularly on the spot — a rare event in a golden career that has made him, at 33, one of the richest and most influential people on the planet.

“We have a saying: ‘Move fast and break things,’” he wrote in his 2012 manifesto. “The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.”

Facebook dropped that motto two years later, but critics say too much of the implicit arrogance has lingered. Mr. Galloway, whose new book, “The Four,” analyzes the power of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple, said the social media network was still fumbling its response.

“Zuckerberg and Facebook are violating the No. 1 rule of crisis management: Overcorrect for the problem,” he said. “Their attitude is that anything that damages their profits is impossible for them to do.”

Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, said the network was doing its best.

“Facebook is an important part of many people’s lives,” he said. “That’s an enormous responsibility — and one that we take incredibly seriously.”

Some social media entrepreneurs acknowledge that they are confronting issues they never imagined as employees of start-ups struggling to survive.

“There wasn’t time to think through the repercussions of everything we did,” Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, said in an interview shortly before he rejoined the service last spring.

He maintained that Twitter was getting an unfair rap: “For every bad thing, there are a thousand good things.” He acknowledged, however, that sometimes “it gets a little messy.”

Despite the swell of criticism, the vast majority of investors, consumers and regulators seem not to have changed their behavior. People still eagerly await the new iPhone. Facebook has more than two billion users. President Trump likes to criticize Amazon on Twitter, but his administration ignored pleas for a rigorous examination of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.

In Europe, however, the ground is already shifting. Google’s share of the search engine market there is 92 percent, according to StatCounter. But that did not stop the European Union from fining it $2.7 billion in June for putting its products above those of its rivals.

A new German law that fines social networks huge sums for not taking down hate speech went into effect this month. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said the government was looking“carefully at the roles, responsibility and legal status” of Google and Facebook, with an eye to regulating them as news publishers rather than platforms.

“This war, like so many wars, is going to start in Europe,” said Mr. Galloway, the New York University professor.

For some tech companies, the new power is a heavy weight. Cloudflare, which provides many sites with essential protection from hacking, made its first editorial decision in August: It lifted its protection from The Daily Stormer, basically expunging the neo-Nazi site from the visible web.

“Increasingly tech companies are going to be put into the position of making these sorts of judgments,” said Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive.

The picture is likely to get even more complicated. Mr. Prince foresees several possible dystopian futures. One is where every search engine has a political point of view, and users gravitate toward the one they feel most comfortable with. That would further balkanize the internet.

Another possibility is the opposite extreme: Under the pressure of regulation, all hate speech — and eventually all dissent — is filtered out.

“People are realizing that technology isn’t neutral,” Mr. Prince said. “I used to travel to Europe to hear these fears. Now I just have to go to Sacramento.”

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Las Vegas Shooting News Coverage – A Perspective

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Last night I received a text from my mom wondering if we should attend the Bruno Mars concert coming up in November. I bought tickets for her birthday this year and we have been excited about attending. What brought on this sudden second guessing? The news coverage of the mass shooting in Las Vegas of course! What happened in Vegas was truly horrible and many are now second guessing how safe it is to attend concerts and other events. While I scrolled through my news feed and perused Facebook, my friends wondered in their posts how such a horrific event could happen. As expected, proponents for tighter gun laws have been in the news which has started a lively debate in my Facebook feed. This post is not about my political views on gun laws, nor is it intended to downplay what has happened. My heart truly goes out to everyone affected. My aim is to bring to light some food for thought as we all absorb the events and news coverage.

The likeliness of being killed in a homicide by a firearm is relatively low compared to other potential causes of death. In 2014 there were 11,008 homicide deaths from a firearm in the U.S. This translates to 3.5 people out of 100,000 or a 0.0035% chance (CDC, 2017). However, firearm homicides are dwarfed in comparison to the top 10 causes of death in 2016 which are as follows:

  • Heart disease: 633,842
  • Cancer: 595,930
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 155,041
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 146,571
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 140,323
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 110,561
  • Diabetes: 79,535
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 57,062
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 49,959
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 44,193 (CDC, 2017)

Looking at the numbers, we should all be more concerned about lifestyles and choices that directly contribute to heart disease and cancer. So why aren’t stories about the leading causes of death receiving the same amount of media coverage? Because media’s #1 job is to create audiences and anything sensational or out of the ordinary does the best job attracting attention (it is like trying to pass a car crash on the freeway and not look). However, creating audiences is much more hyper targeted than it used to be. News Media companies collect personally identifiable information on our viewing and reading habits through cookies, device IDs and set-top box data to name a few. This data collected is then utilized so they can sell their advertisers the best target audiences across their platforms. For example, Apple’s algorithms know I have recently been following hurricanes since I was in Florida right before Irma. On October 3rd in the “For You” section, there was an article from the Miami Herald about the tropical depression moving towards the Caribbean. Right below that article, an advertisement from Wells Fargo (my bank) was strategically placed. Wells Fargo has my personal information and so does Apple, so they can leverage an intermediary to anonymize and match my data between the companies while remaining privacy compliant. From there my anonymized information is leveraged enabling Wells Fargo to strategically target their advertisement in my Apple news feed. Because the targeting is more precise to the audience, Wells Fargo in theory sees a lift in their ROI and Apple commands higher advertising rates.

While media uses sensational headlines and stories to gain more of our attention, the bad news in the media affects our stress levels. A study on news coverage from the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings increased “acute stress” in students at other universities who followed the happenings in the news media. Furthermore, the more news media on the subject consumed the higher the probability the students would respond with higher degrees of stress symptomology (Fallahi & Lesik, 2009). Constant news negativity can exacerbate our own feelings of sadness and anxiety as well as the severity of how we perceive our own situation (Davey, 2012). A big dose of negative news daily can certainly send me into a spin of constant mobile device checking for updates and an overall pessimistic view that day.

Does this mean we should all turn off the news and not pay attention to what is going on in the world? Of course not, as the news media plays a positive role in society as well. We just all need to remember that News Media’s first priority is to create audiences and react accordingly.

References:

CDC. (2017, March 17). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Assault or Homicide. Retrieved October 6, 2017, from National Center for Health Statistics: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm

CDC. (2017, March 17). National Center for Health Statistics Leading Causes of Death. Retrieved October 2017, 2017, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm

Davey, G. (2012). Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-we-worry/201206/the-psychological-effects-tv-news

Fallahi, C. R., & Lesik, S. A. (2009). The effects of vicarious exposure to the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 1(3), 220-230. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0015052

 

 

Advertising vs Data – Media Advertising

large_ocxb50ft3lblnlolqi2keb_vodqs4m_w5ejospp8d2wFor over 30 years now I’ve been hearing what seems to be a never-ending debate between “suits” of the research orientation and creatives about how advertising should be done. Creatives always complain that research has a tendency to kill great advertising. Research people point to case after case of bad creative that would never have […]

via Creativity in Advertising vs. Data — mediainmind

Media Psychology

I like socks. Strange socks. People who don’t know what to get me at Christmas usually land on the weirdest socks they can find at EA Games. So when I found out there was a socks company that donated a pair of socks for every pair purchased, it had my attention. But that’s not even […]

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Psych Pstuff – Media Psychology

by Dr. Donna Roberts The Story “I feel like that’s been done before,” chimes Heidi Klum to the hopeful designer facing Project Runway’s latest red carpet gown challenge. And just like that, hope flies out the proverbial window, replaced by the dread of knowing he may be the newest ex-runway contestant. It’s a grave […]

via Fads and Crazes, Trends and Rages: Why we’re always looking for the next best thing | Easy Street — psych pstuff

Why We Need to Understand the Impact of Advertising

by Donna L. Roberts, PhD
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Advertising is everywhere the modern environment – on radio and television, in magazines and newspapers, on billboards, on buildings, on public transportation, on the clothing, shoes and accessories of sports and entertainment figures and strategically placed in films and television shows.  Far from being a passive mirror of society and reflection of already established consumer needs, advertising exerts influence that is cumulative, often subtle and at least partially unconscious.  If the average American is inundated with over 3000 ads per day, which are theorized to influence and manipulate his/her behavior, then a thorough understanding of this powerful persuader is certainly in the best interest of behavioral researchers, clinical practitioners and certainly the individuals themselves (Du Plessis, 2005; Kilbourne, 1999; Vollmer & Precourt, 2008).

Understanding individual differences in response to external stimuli would contribute to a better understanding of both these differences and how the process of influence and persuasion work in our daily lives.  This could have impact on how society chooses to ethically regulate the distribution of and exposure to mass communications.  Minimally, it could give individuals the information necessary to self-regulate the persuasive influences in which they are so fully immersed in today’s society.  More fully understanding how particular types of messages carry more or less influence with differing personalities could also be potentially useful in a variety of clinical settings – for example in shaping more effective assessment measures and subsequent approaches to therapy and counseling that take personality into consideration.

References

Du Plessis, E. (2008). The advertised mind: Ground-breaking insights into how our brains respond to advertising. Sterling, VA: Millward Brown.  

Kilbourne, J. (1999). Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising. Boston, MA: Free Press.

Vollmer, C., & Precourt, G. (2008). Always on: Advertising, marketing and media in an era of consumer control. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

 

Media Psychology – Podcasts

https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=song-exploder-yWw069

We love podcasts: they’re like the blogging version of radio, a medium anyone can jump into and use to share their story. They introduce us to new voices and give us glimpses into new perspectives… and they pair perfectly with blogs and websites, where they can add more texture and interest to what you’re already […]

via Better Blogging Through Podcasts: Announcing RadioPublic Embeds — The WordPress.com Blog