A former Facebook employee hailed by the media as a whistleblower testified this week on Capitol Hill about the social media giant’s algorithm, and how it harms children and democracy. Frances Haugen told the the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security that Facebook routinely chooses profit over safety, creating an addictive product that puts children—and American democracy—at risk by failing to adequately police its product.
But though Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is no doubt embarrassed by the brouhaha, he and his fellow big tech founders ultimately may have very little to worry about. At the end of the day, Haugen’s testimony was less an exposé and more a distraction from the far more urgent issue of big tech’s expanding monopolistic reach, and its growing political and cultural power. The real question when it comes to big tech is not the one posed by Haugen’s testimony—whether Facebook and the other tech platforms allow “misinformation” or “hate speech” on their platforms; her testimony instead conveniently missed the real problem: that a handful of mega-firms are now controlling content for much of the population.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults now get their news through social media sites like Facebook or from Google.This is even more true among millennials, soon to be the nation’s largest voting bloc. And tech oligarchs have further expanded their domain by purchasing much of what is left of the mainstream media, including the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and the long-distressed Time Magazine .
And contrary to what Haugen and the Senate seem to believe, the biggest problem with having the flow of information so tightly concentrated in the hands of so few is not that it allows posts from hate groups or divisive political operatives or skinny teenagers. It’s that a tiny handful of oligarchs are dictating what is knowable, or what views are valid.
Attempts to shape or control thought by the tech giants are proceeding with astonishing speed. Staffers at Google, Facebook and Twitter increasingly “curate” the content on their sites. Often this means eliminating conservative views, according to former employees; companies increasingly use algorithms intended to screen out “hate groups.” But as reporting has shown, the e-programmers put in charge of this work often have trouble distinguishing between “hate groups” and those who might simply express dissenting if legitimate supported views.
If once we thought the IT revolution would foster a more democratic era in communications, what happened was the opposite: The media became more concentrated, with just a few companies controlling all the information pipelines.The steady erosion in anti-trust enforcement under both parties has left firms like Facebook and Google with almost unlimited power to acquire or crush competitors and ideological opponents. And these firms are near-absolute monopolies; they hold market shares that exceed eighty percent in key markets like search, social media, and book sales, as well as phone and PC operating systems.
And unlike for companies in a competitive economy, customer resistance and record low levels of trust mean very little to the profits of big tech firms. With their quasi- monopoly status, Facebook and Google don’t have to worry about giving offense the way a conventional firm might.
In fact, attempts to “regulate” the tech oligopolies may just make them stronger. Mark Zuckerberg routinely agrees with the censure against him, and when the federal strictures do come down, there’s every sign he will accept them, gaining even more allies in government and consolidating his monopoly and political influence.
Read the rest of this piece at Newsweek.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.