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Facebook confessions: U of T professors analyze Silicon Valley's dystopian narrative ahead of U.S. election

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 1:54pm
Patricia Lonergan

A wave of tech regret has emerged from Silicon Valley. The oft-repeated utopian promises of creating a better world using technology have shifted as Facebook insiders abandon the company and raise the alarm about the insidious nature of the platform – warnings that become even more concerning as another American election looms.

“I think Facebook is quickly moving toward a place where it’s very much a threat to democracy,” says David Nieborg, an assistant professor of media studies at U of T Scarborough. “If you work for Facebook, how can you live with yourself?”

This wave of criticism began after Facebook’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, which was marked by Russian interference and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Key employees at Facebook started leaving the company, slamming the door behind them and publicly airing their regrets and criticisms toward the platform they helped build.

This insider criticism is what Nieborg and U of T Mississauga assistant professor Tero Karppi refer to as “Facebook confessions” in their recent study that analyzes the emerging dystopian narrative coming out of Silicon Valley.

Scouring statements made by former Facebook executives, investors and engineers, the duo uncovered recurring themes suggesting Facebook has the capacity to damage democratic decision-making and exploit human psychology.

In his farewell message, for example, Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president for user growth, stated: “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

These admissions of so-called tech regret were punctuated by suggestions that people simply disconnect from the platform – a recommendation that is not as easy as it seems, according to both Karppi and Nieborg.

“Facebook is already the utility. It’s becoming ubiquitous and dominant, like telephone service and electricity,” says Nieborg. “It’s ingrained in everyday lives.”

He notes we may already be at the point where people cannot leave for professional, social or cultural reasons.

“More and more I feel Facebook is like a cable provider or mobile phone provider. Everyone uses it but everyone hates it, and there’s no way out of it,” Nieborg says.

“I think we can all agree that Facebook is not transparent whatsoever, it’s not fair, and it’s not accountable. There is no willingness to be accountable.”

If there was a willingness, these former executives – some of whom have invested millions – wouldn’t be leaving because there would be a way to hold the company accountable, Nieborg explains.

Even Yael Eisenstat, who was hired in 2018 to help fix the problem of political advertising, seemed unable to hold the company to account, according to Nieborg and Karppi. After leaving Facebook, she stated, “I don’t know if anybody up the chain even considered our proposals to combat misinformation in political ads,” adding, “As long as Facebook prioritizes profit over healthy discourse, it can’t avoid damaging democracy.”

Karppi says that it’s important to recognize the more dystopian tones coming out of Silicon Valley because it will influence how new startups think of their platforms and also the way regulatory measures take place in the future.

There has been some movement toward regulation, particularly in Europe. Nieborg says given Germany’s history, there’s recognition of what happens in a mass surveillance society. That is leading to “a lot of good regulatory initiatives.”

But any potential regulations will not change how Facebook operates during the upcoming election.

With Americans due to head to the ballot box in November and rumblings of a possible Canadian federal election on the horizon, Nieborg says he is “incredibly worried” because Facebook doesn’t seem to have learned from its recent past.

“I think Mark Zuckerberg will not go down in history as the likes of Rockefeller or Ford. I think he’ll go down in history as the Koch brothers in the U.S. – people who really abused monopoly power. I think history books will judge him, and they should judge him, incredibly harshly, but it will take some time for that to happen.”

Karppi adds that, as a researcher, he’s curious to see if another wave of dystopian messaging will emerge from Silicon Valley after the November election, regardless of who wins. The recent wave, after all, started after the 2016 election, and this time Facebook is aware problems exist. Whether more employees will leave and there will be new revelations remains to be seen.