Zucked: When Algorithms Replace Ethics

I am about halfway through Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee. It’s going slow because what I am learning makes me so angry, sad or alarmed about my #1 destination on the Web. Nearly every page causes me to stop and think not just about Facebook’s betrayal of so many billion trusting users, but also that this book confirms a growing concern I have about the deteriorating relationship between people and technology in general and my frustration that both self-regulation by tech companies and the ability of our government to protect us in situations such as this have been to date just plain impotent.

I am those who originally came to Facebook to share thoughts, ideas and pictures with friends. It grew to be a source of insight and information for my most recent five books and it used to be an abundant source of new business leads. For over ten years, Facebook has provided me with abundant returns on my significant investments of time.

Less so now.

Zucked is not the first book that warned against Facebook, but it is made more powerful and credible because the source is Roger McNamee, who I consider to be among the most credible voices in technology.

I have known Roger since we were both just starting careers related to the business of technology. We were never close, but we did share a passion back in the early 80s for the promise of personal technology, best described by the late Steve Jobs as a “bicycle for the mind,”  mentioned in this book. I have long followed his thought leadership in areas to technology as a primal transformative force.

Stone Wall Ahead

Zucked is giving me this very disturbing image that billions of people are riding their mental bicycles at breathtaking speed down an extremely long and darkening tunnel at the end of which is a stone wall.

Most of us feel this sense of tunnel. We ride along surrounded by people who see what we see, think what we think, oppose those who are different from us and keep peddling along despite mounting evidence that the ride may end badly.

We humans have become a divided lot. Civility between us has deteriorated as has trust: We’re increasingly disinclined to find common ground with each other and we debate political and social issues with stridency and distrust: We feel that righteousness is on our side and this who disagree are evil, deranged, dangerous or all three.

Roger McNamee believes the culprit that has done the most to distort our perceptions is Facebook, and in the half of the book that I have completed, he makes an overwhelmingly compelling case.

Manipulating Minds

Facebook, as you may know, is the largest company in history. More than 2.2 billion people log in at least once monthly. That’s about one in three people on Earth when you eliminate those without digital access or children under age five or seniors who have lost the ability or desire to use computers.

But wait. Sadly, there’s more.

Facebook also owns Instagram, which has 1.5 billion users and WhatsApp with about a billion moreOf course, there’s overlap, but a conservative estimate of these three social networks gives us at least three billion unique users, most of whom visit more than once daily; some of us a lot more.

Facebook and its two largest subsidiaries are manipulating the hearts and minds of half the world’s people, more by orders of magnitude, than any corporation in history, more than twice the number of people controlled by the Chinese government today; more than the number of people suppressed by Germany, Japan and Russia during World War 2.

According to McNamee, the empire is under the control of just two people Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg.

The Virtuous We

McNamee served as Zuckerberg’s mentor from 2006-to-2009, starting shortly after young Zuck dropped out of Harvard where Facebook began by facilitating the ability to find dates for frat boys at elite universities. It became a lot more than that extremely quickly when Zuck and Silicon Valley found each other.

McNamee says he has written this broadside to sound the alarm, to warn us that Facebook has created the sort of Filter Bubble that Eli Pariser wrote about a few years back. This bubble filters what we see so that we like almost all of it. We talk almost exclusive with people who share our views. This establishes the concept that each of us is a part of a virtuous we (my words). This is done of course by carefully calibrated algorithms. This social insulation is bad enough, but it worsens by orders of magnitude when algorithms pit the virtuous we against the evil them: people just think differently about political and social issues.

The tools that Facebook uses are not inherently evil: no tools are. You can use a hammer to build a house or bludgeon a spouse. It’s up to the user, and Facebook has long defended itself for not being responsible for the hate, bullying, swindling and despicable behavior most people have witnessed on Facebook.

McNamee points to the work of a well-intentioned person, who I consulted many years ago. Stanford Professor BJ Fogg, who fathered the concept of Persuasive Computing: how computers can be used to change their attitude and behavior. When I knew Prof. Fogg he talked enthusiastically about Persuasive Computing benefitting humankind, making us tolerant of diversity.

McNamee says Facebook uses Persuasive Computing as a tool not to benefit humankind, but to manipulate it. It is Facebook’s power tool not for the users who are the product but for advertisers that are the customers. 

Facebook discovered that when people are pissed off, they post more, the link more, they stay on the social network longer. The company is agnostic about how it impacts people, so long as it allows them to gain revenue by sticking more ads in front of our faces: From the company’s perspective you and I and another three billion people are not there to be entertained or otherwise made happy; we are there to become data points for ad mongers.

Without Ethics

Everything we see and everyone suggested to us to Follow or Like, every Group we are invited to join is calculated by algorithms and based on the perpetual collection of our data. These algorithms, of course, have machine intelligence, but they are devoid of other human qualities including ethics, compassion, empathy, humor, irony, nuance or any desire to find a common ground between people who once would respectfully disagree.

Filter Bubbles, Persuasive Computing and ever-more effective algorithms manipulate us and make us addictive. We trust newcomers into our personal bubbles because they know people we know. This sound comforting in itself, but it reinforces what we already think and introduces few new thoughts to ponder—unless they piss us off or scare us. So, if you are like my wife, Paula Israel, who is passionate about protecting animals in the wild, you will be fed all sorts of news and photos about horrible things being done to wolves or whales.  If you hate Donald Trump, you will be selected to get tons of reports on the obscenities he foments each day; and if you believe that America should not be the place it has been for welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses of the world, you will be fed fake news about rapists, terrorists and drug runners massed at our southern borders plotting to destroy a neighborhood near you.

Facebook’s data has figured out that when we are outraged, horrified, indignant or saddened, we stay on the social network longer. We share more, we like more, and we post more, and it has designed and calibrated it so that we do this.

Brexit as a Petri Dish

The result, of course, has a great deal to do with the mess we are in. Hackers and fake news mongers learned to perfect voter manipulation during Brexit in 2015. Then they took what they learned there and refined it to serve Donald Trump in 2016, and nothing has occurred to prevent it from happening again in the US or anywhere else where there are supposed to be free elections.

They have hired people to address the problem who have resigned in frustration, shortly after starting. Basecamp, has stopped advertising or being present on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.  In April, Proctor & Gamble set Facebook –and Google—on notice to change their practices or lose the ad support of the world’s largest consumer products company. If they leave, you can assume others will follow.

But so far, all this noise and concern, all these congressional inquiries and media diatribes have not prevented Facebook from reporting greater and greater riches quarter after quarter after quarter.

I think that is because we addicts keep coming back and allowing the algorithms to manipulate our eyeballs.

Some of what I just said is in Zucked, while some are my own conclusion after reading just half of this important book. Like most of my readers, I have become increasingly concerned about Facebook’s preference for algorithms over ethics.

I have not yet finished the book as I mentioned. I have reached a point where McNamee has formed a small group of highly capable and influential people who are talking to the media, advising influential elected officials and of course, writing articles and this book. They are speaking to anyone who listens in the hope that if Facebook will not change itself than the government should do it for them.

In Silicon Valley’s most powerful circles, there is a very long history of Libertarianism in business: the consensus is that the tech industry can self-regulate itself better than the government can do it. I have long been of that mind, but this book has already convinced me otherwise.

There is little evidence that the tech industry will self-regulate with any greater integrity or effectiveness than the oil and gas industry of an earlier era where the government had to break up Standard Oil in 1911.

Our industry has been all about the legend of startups on the world’s economy. Entrepreneurialism is on the shortlist of hope for the future. It is a great dream filled with wonderful stories, but the truth is that the miracle of the startup has been eclipsed by seemingly indestructible giants like Facebook (and Google who shares many of Facebook’s questionable algorithmic manipulations).

As for me, I am not about to leave either Facebook or Google. My work still depends on these platforms in a great many ways. But I am cutting back, more and more each day. In fact, I see Roger McNamee on the platform as well.

I imagine there is a vanishing point somewhere in my not-too-distant future. I would favor the break-up of Facebook by government, but I fear that both Congress and the Supreme Court would protect the interests of shareholders and advertisers than of us, three billion addicts.

Shel Israel

Shel Israel is the author of seven business books on disruptive technologies and has contributed to Forbes, FastCompany, Business Insider, ItSeemstoMe and other publications. He currently ghostwrites books and advises CEOs on communication strategies.

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