How Facebook & Google Threaten Public Health... And Democracy

Authored by Roger McNamee, op-ed via The Guardian,

The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health...

In an interview this week with Axios, Facebook’s original president, Sean Parker, admitted that the company intentionally sought to addict users and expressed regret at the damage being inflicted on children.

This admission, by one of the architects of Facebook, comes on the heels of last week’s hearings by Congressional committees about Russian interference in the 2016 election, where the general counsels of Facebook, Alphabet (parent of Google and YouTube), and Twitter attempted to deflect responsibility for manipulation of their platforms.

The term “addiction” is no exaggeration. The average consumer checks his or her smartphone 150 times a day, making more than 2,000 swipes and touches. The applications they use most frequently are owned by Facebook and Alphabet, and the usage of those products is still increasing.

In terms of scale, Facebook and YouTube are similar to Christianity and Islam respectively. More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, 1.3 billion check in every day. More than 1.5 billion people use YouTube. Other services owned by these companies also have user populations of 1 billion or more.

Facebook and Alphabet are huge because users are willing to trade privacy and openness for “convenient and free.”

Content creators resisted at first, but user demand forced them to surrender control and profits to Facebook and Alphabet.

The sad truth is that Facebook and Alphabet have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. They have consciously combined persuasive techniques developed by propagandists and the gambling industry with technology in ways that threaten public health and democracy. The issue, however, is not social networking or search. It is advertising business models. Let me explain.

From the earliest days of tabloid newspapers, publishers realized the power of exploiting human emotions. To win a battle for attention, publishers must give users “what they want,” content that appeals to emotions, rather than intellect. Substance cannot compete with sensation, which must be amplified constantly, lest consumers get distracted and move on.

“If it bleeds, it leads” has guided editorial choices for more than 150 years, but has only become a threat to society in the past decade, since the introduction of smartphones. Media delivery platforms like newspapers, television, books, and even computers are persuasive, but people only engage with them for a few hours each day and every person receives the same content.

Today’s battle for attention is not a fair fight. Every competitor exploits the same techniques, but Facebook and Alphabet have prohibitive advantages: personalization and smartphones. Unlike older media, Facebook and Alphabet know essentially everything about their users, tracking them everywhere they go on the web and often beyond.

By making every experience free and easy, Facebook and Alphabet became gatekeepers on the internet, giving them levels of control and profitability previously unknown in media. They exploit data to customize each user’s experience and siphon profits from content creators. Thanks to smartphones, the battle for attention now takes place on a single platform that is available every waking moment. Competitors to Facebook and Alphabet do not have a prayer.

Facebook and Alphabet monetize content through advertising that is targeted more precisely than has ever been possible before. The platforms create “filter bubbles” around each user, confirming pre-existing beliefs and often creating the illusion that everyone shares the same views. Platforms do this because it is profitable. The downside of filter bubbles is that beliefs become more rigid and extreme. Users are less open to new ideas and even to facts.

Of the millions of pieces of content that Facebook can show each user at a given time, they choose the handful most likely to maximize profits. If it were not for the advertising business model, Facebook might choose content that informs, inspires, or enriches users. Instead, the user experience on Facebook is dominated by appeals to fear and anger. This would be bad enough, but reality is worse.

Any advertiser can get access to any Facebook user over unsupervised, automated systems. Five million advertisers do so every month. The Russians took advantage of this first to sow discord among Americans and then to interfere in the 2016 election. Other bad actors exploited Facebook in other areas. One company surveilled protest groups and marketed that data to police departments.

Financial institutions were investigated for using Facebook advertising tools to discriminate on the basis of race. Facebook is not the only problem. Alphabet provides Chromebooks to elementary schools with the objective of capturing the attention, and perhaps even behavioral data, about children. At the same time, Alphabet’s YouTube Kids is a site filled with inappropriate content that creates addiction in children far too young to resist.

While optimizing for profit is understandable and generally appropriate, Facebook and Alphabet have caused harm that requires serious discussion and remediation.

Facebook and Alphabet assert they are not media companies and therefore are not responsible for what third parties do on their platforms. While that position might be reasonable from start-ups, it is not appropriate from companies who control seven of the top 10 platforms on the internet and exhibit the behaviors of monopolies.

Society regulates products that create addiction. We have laws to prevent discrimination and election manipulation. None of these regulations and laws has yet been applied to Facebook and Google. The time has come.

* * *

McNamee's exasperation also reflects on the current 'them' and 'us' battle occurring in the valley as The Big Four (FANG) bully, steal, and threaten their way to ever more dominance at the expense of start-ups... and the VC community.


SWRichmond Skateboarder Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:57 Permalink

The Russians took advantage of this first to sow discord among AmericansAnd they have been very effective at it, haven't they, even at the expense of becoming pariahs?  It has been masterfully done, and a lot cheaper than dozens of divisions of armor.  The Russians have us at each other's throats. The "election interference" is a red herring.

In reply to by Skateboarder

Evan Wilson HamSandwich Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:50 Permalink

I still find it amazing that anyone pays to do advertising on Facebook or Google. The few times I tried either for any of my clients, the only thing that happened was that all of the money got spent, and ZERO referals.One business tried Googles AdWords for people looking to refinance or get a mortgage. We set the monthly limit to about $50 and let it run for a few months. Usually, within a few days the whole budget was spent with a few hundred views but no one even went to the web site or asked for more information.Another buisiness, take out restaurant, paid for about 20,000 impressions on Facebook within a week. They got ZERO additional business. As a comparison, the same amount of money could have been spent on sending about 2,000 menus to every mailbox on a few nearby routes, and would have had a 1% response rate the day the menus hit the mailboxes or at least 20 new orders just on the day of, with more orders to come from that area over the next few weeks.  

In reply to by HamSandwich

Xscream Evan Wilson Sat, 11/11/2017 - 14:06 Permalink

Spent my life selling various types of advertising, newspaper, radio, and local tv. My clients demanded some kind of results or feedback. If this is the case for most of thier clients they are doomed. Old sage media buyer once told me i know half my ad budget is wasted, my job is to find out which half. Targeted is fine but you still have to ring the register, or they will not buy again.

In reply to by Evan Wilson

Pure Evil Xscream Sat, 11/11/2017 - 14:44 Permalink

The real problem, or maybe not, is that the vast majority of people have learned to tune out advertising as a whole.While watching TV people can mute the commercials or simply hit the favorites button to take them to a different channel, wait the appropriate amount of time and jump back to their program.Even if most people don't do the above they're too budy paying attention to their smart phone to notice anything else.

In reply to by Xscream

JRobby Pure Evil Sat, 11/11/2017 - 17:28 Permalink

I often wonder how the print and radio ad sales people can keep a straight face as they tell you "how much $$ you are leaving on the table" if you don't buy their advertising. If it's so good, why do you have to lock in to long term contracts?"Well your frequency has to reach a certain number""What's the number?""Well it's dependent on a number of things"etc., etc.

In reply to by Pure Evil

jimbos world Evan Wilson Sat, 11/11/2017 - 21:16 Permalink

You aren't doing it right. FB Ads Manager since early this year now has a certification one can earn by testing and AdWords has offered certifications for about 8 years and is now up to 5 different certs. for the whole shebang. I'm not implying anyone needs these, merely that there is a reason for them.You obviuosly don't understand keyword bidding. "Finance" and "mortgage" are high dollar clicks. If I was running a campaign on those search terms I wouldn't expect more than 0 clicks for a $50 budget per month. That's a good budget per day maybe, depending on all the other factors you are supoosed to consider.You can't actually know if they got addintional business from those impressions can you? it may very well be every customer the next day was a first time visit, but you have no way of knowing unless you asked them all and they didn't lie to you. You wasted your clients ad dollars by not understanding what the fuck what you were doing.Disclaimer: I don't advocate for the methods or ethics of above mentioned advertising platforms, but I sure as fuck make it a point to understand them and use them to my advantage if necessary. 

In reply to by Evan Wilson

XBroker1 Sat, 11/11/2017 - 12:59 Permalink

I do't have a smart anything or a facebook account. My vehicles have no tracking devices, so good luck knowing where I am and who I associate with. Cell phone towers and the smart grid are a mass weapon against humanity; and 5 G is on the way. The slowly 'warmed up' frog will soon be in a boil. The only solution is mass noncomliance.

DavidFL Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:07 Permalink

This article is endemic of the stupidity of the typical American moron. If you dont want to be controlled and manipulated by these media fools - just turn it off! Dont log on - no one is forcing you, you do so because you are a fool.

kbohip Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:10 Permalink

If you would have told me 20 years ago that the future would consist of people spending most of their days on a phone pressing the "like" button on an app for a barely known acquaintances pet picture I would have laughed in your face.  The fact that this is real is the single biggest tragedy of our time.

pigpen Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:13 Permalink

Do it for the kids. Destroy the digital advertising model of goobook by installing brave browser and blocking advertising, tracking and malware by DEFAULT.If these companies are going to create mental health issues, censor speech and track citizens, then it is incumbent for everybody to destroy their business model.Use brave on any device or operating system. Easy to use and faster than any browser.Use social media apps in brave browser. Blocks everything rendering digital advertising model useless.Cheers,Pigpen 

DCFusor pigpen Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:29 Permalink

It doesn't help if you do it - the issue is what everyone else does, and they're not paying an awake kind of attention.What you take away with one hand, you'd better have in the other to give back.  While the perversion due to ad-funded stuff is made far worse by the web giants, it's also a case of "quantity has a quality all its own" and the ad-funded world is well entrenched indeed.  Yes, there "oughta be a better way" but I'm not hearing what it might be.  Take away all the bucks and the services go away too.  Find a way for them to make bucks w/o serious bias and well, making bucks is what they're all about...the bias just comes in via the method they are currently made (mostly).So, without ad-funding...what replaces that?  I'm all ears, and would love to hear an actual working soution to this.  I've long been pissed that ad revenue drives the world, it's not new - it might even go back further than your own life.  The current horrible situation is just an extension of what began with the advent of all mass media. 

In reply to by pigpen

wmbz Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:15 Permalink

Never been on faceplant and never will. I do not use google, at present if I want to look something up it's duckduckgo.That said I know plenty of folks that I believe would go into full and complete melt down if either were taken away from them. I read a poll once that stated the people they asked, about 73% would rather lose a friend than their cell phone.The industry understands this very well.

pigpen Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:16 Permalink

Also Feds won't break up any Monopoly. So time for citizens to break the digital advertising business by using brave browser.Works on any device and operating system and by default blocks advertising, tracking and malware.Get granny and kids to change their browser.Control the browser and control the money and attention.Cheers,Pigpen

TeethVillage88s Sat, 11/11/2017 - 14:26 Permalink

Uni Directional Threat?

- Threat to Citizenship, Participation in a Nation, Patriotism, Voting,
- Threat to Mind of US People, Mental Health, Balanced Approach to Life, Healthy Lifestyle
- Threat to increased Domestic Propaganda, Confused & Stressed Mind, Targeted Demographics & Ideology
- Threat to Borders, Spread of Globalism, Ideology of Trade, Ideology of unlimited money & no responsibility
- Threat to basic ideas of base philosophy in budgeting, watching money flows, tracking & analysis of Wealth Flows
- National Productivity is under threat by distractions & new ideology of 'Playtime'

Bah... Mono Threat is Cognitive Error.

- Threat to Privacy & Civil/Individual Rights, Security, freedom from Technology in your life spying on you

Pernicious Gol… Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:19 Permalink

Fuckbook and Goolag are legal. Also legal should be heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, amphetamines and other things addictive and harmful - as long as the users are responsible for themselves and their behavior, and don't expect me to pay one cent to help them.

S.N.A.F.U. Pernicious Gol… Sat, 11/11/2017 - 17:42 Permalink

Damn straight.  It's about time for me to be able to go down to the corner drug store and buy all the Rohypnol and chloroform I want.  (I foresee a huge bump in my "dating" success!)  Also, I'm going to need a good quantity of cyanide - pesky neighbors dontchya know.The rapist or murderer being (theoretically) "responsible for themselves and their behavior" is not the same as the rape or murder not happening, or the rapist or murderer being caught and brought to justice.Stefan Molyneux put out a video just yesterday about how the law (and law enforcement) is simply not able to cope with certain things, and the potential usefulness of society to show a bit of restraint to avoid those situations coming up in the first place.  The specific topic he was covering was "he said / she said" cases and how those were avoided in the past, but the same idea could be applied to other areas, including drugs with nefarious uses.My idea of libertarianism is an approach which maximizes individual liberty.  Allowing the free sale of some things (like rufies) may be more likely to harm individual liberty (increased rapes) than improve it.I am, of course, not claiming that's true of all (or even necessarily most) recreational drugs (though even alcohol can be abused without someone's knowledge - aka spiking).  But I am saying to watch out, keep your brain's on/off switch turned to the "on" position, and don't just go blindly applying simple-minded and poorly thought out ideologies.Also note that voters being "responsible for themselves and their behavior" will not stop them, after being brainwashed by Facebook and Google and the MSM et al, from voting away your rights - rights you might consider to be more important than the "right" of Facebook and Google to maintain their monopolies and their "right" to use their platforms as social engineering and experimentation tools.

In reply to by Pernicious Gol…

Ofay Cat Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:19 Permalink

I anyone thinks that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other offerings in social media are not addictive, then you just arrived on the planet and have no idea about human nature. The longterm effects of this addiction will start to be felt very soon. These addictions twits who have little idea how to interact with reality will be running the asylum. Wait for it ... wait for it ....

Consuelo Sat, 11/11/2017 - 13:20 Permalink

  Is it really a stretch of IQ to suggest that human beings (by & large) are social creatures...?Is it a further stretch of IQ to suggest that tapping into psychology of that phenomenon would at some point, be a 'no-brainer'...?Is it stretching IQ to the point of fraying, to suggest that a couple enterprising college students, already steeped in current technology but in addition having the advantage of a background in psychology itself as a study, would assemble the chocolate of communicating via hand-held devices, with the peanut butter of social interaction to develop what we have today...?And taking it down to the final thread of high IQ, would it be a last stretch to suggest that intelligence agencies, long steeped in the art of psychological spy-craft, might see this as a pot of gold at the end of prism rainbow...?