Tech giants, once admired, now viewed as threats
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 they 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 workforce 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.”
The reality is 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,” Baird said.
Criticism of tech is nothing new, of course. In a Newsweek jeremiad in 1995 titled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” 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.”
American tech companies positioned themselves as entities that brought positive change. But perceptions are changing as their systems and tools have also been used to undermine democracy.