Backlash begins for social media firms

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.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg 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 workforce to lean in," said Mr 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 US 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.

Ms Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, was in Washington last week, meeting with lawmakers and making public mea culpas about how things happened during the election "that should not have happened".

Mr Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, was in Pittsburgh last Thursday talking about the "large gaps in opportunity across the US" and announcing a US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) grant programme to promote jobs.

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

Mr 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 monetise," Mr Baird said.

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.

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," Mr 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 behaviour. People still eagerly await the new iPhone. Facebook has more than two billion users. US President Donald Trump likes to criticise 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 shifting. Google's share of the search engine market there is 92 per cent, according to Stat Counter. But that did not stop the European Union from fining it US$2.7 billion in June for putting its own products above those of rivals.

A new German law that fines social networks huge sums for not taking down hate speech went into effect this month.

Last 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Backlash begins for social media firms'. Print Edition | Subscribe