How Big Tech Threatens the Culture of Our Communities – Governing

Posted: October 13, 2021 at 7:31 pm

Former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week that Facebook and some other social media companies allow their platforms to be used for anti-democratic, divisive and hateful purposes. She also alleged, while providing documents stolen when she worked as a product manager at Facebook, that the company had in its possession research that proved this but that its leadership ignores the research because the company makes huge profits from the contentious and vitriolic content posted on its platform.

Much of this discussion has been pitched as a problem of technology and policy with global implications. But little attention has been given to the implications for local communities. I see three potential areas of concern for local-government officials: First, many fringe groups are using news feeds and content from social media to target public officials, even to the point of threatening their lives. Second, local governments are either purchasing technology or outsourcing network infrastructure to private firms that utilize some of the same technology that Facebook and others are under fire for. And finally, local governments are offering Facebook, Google and other Big Tech firms lucrative tax breaks to lure their operations to their communities.

Sadly, the issues raised by Haugen before Congress and on 60 Minutes are hard for some to understand. Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media and search platforms collect a large amount of data on users through web cookies and other tracking technologies. What is problematic is what happens next: Facebook and other companies use the data to determine preferences and tastes and then target users with ads and content using algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Then there is the problem of content itself. The algorithmic amplification process sometimes takes users to sites they are not looking for. Recently, when I was searching for pro-civil rights sites, I was redirected to sites of organizations opposed to civil rights. I immediately recognized the problem, but what if I was a young student who was not as familiar with the topic or how Internet searches work? This problem has implications for both information integrity and education.

An equally serious problem, and one that is harder to detect, is when algorithms are set up in a way that results in discriminatory outcomes against women, racial and ethnic groups, or low-income individuals. My daughter, applying for a position recently with a technology firm, used a lot of strange jargon of which I was unfamiliar in her letter of interest. I asked her why. She told me she had read on a social media site that the initial batch of letters and rsums were screened by applicant tracking system technology that looked for certain keywords. If these words and phrases were missing, your application would be automatically kicked out.

Finally, I believe one of the most important questions local governments will have to answer is whether they should continue to subsidize the move of Big Tech companies into their communities if it is determined that any of Haugens allegations are true. Many companies come to local governments promising to bring hundreds of good-paying data center jobs and broadband for underserved communities. Facebook is building a data center in an industrial park whose campus bestrides land in three counties about 45 miles east of Atlanta, and as far as I can tell no one asked about user data or AI issues. In fact, mayors and county executives often brag about luring a big firm to their jurisdiction.

I recommend that local officials pay close attention to the congressional hearings underway and assess for themselves the larger impact these companies might be having on society. Are hate groups using the platforms to mount insurrection against our democracy? Are our most fragile residents, children and the poor, exploited by these technologies because they depend on them as their primary information source? And are the platforms deliberately separating us and making it difficult for us to form consensus and be civil to one another?

Facebook and the other titans of Big Tech, the chairman of the committee before which Haugen testified told his Senate colleagues, are facing their Big Tobacco moment. Are the dangers of this largely unregulated industry equivalent to those of the tobacco industry of the past? Tobacco companies knew their products caused cancer and were addictive, but they made huge profits, so they ignored the dangers to society. If the allegations leveled by Haugen and others turn out to be true, we might end up paying a bigger cost this time around: the loss of democracy and civilization. It's too high a price to pay.

Originally posted here:

How Big Tech Threatens the Culture of Our Communities - Governing

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