Soros vs. Facebook
One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.
Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.
As John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker, Soros suggested that these “tech giants”, in addition to “making excessive profits and stifling innovation,” were “causing larger social and political problems.”
Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”
He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.
This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)
The Smoke Screen
In my opinion, the first problem — the engineered addiction — is the more pressing issue surrounding social media. These services relentlessly sap time and attention from peoples’ personal and professional lives that could be directed toward more meaningful and productive pursuits, and instead package it for resale to advertisers so the value can be crystalized for a small number of major investors. (See Douglas Rushkoff for more on these economic dynamics.)
And we don’t even know yet the harm it’s causing young people, though some suggest it might be worse than we suspect.
It’s important to recognize that the public discussion of this issue is a serious problem for attention economy companies whose entire business model depends on getting people to use their services as much as possible.
Facebook’s revenue, for example, is almost entirely a function of the number of minutes the average user spends per week engaging with the service. Reducing this by even 5 to 10% — by tamping down or eliminating some of Facebook’s most addictive features — would have a disastrous impact on the quarterly earnings of this $500 billion company.
“[A]t Facebook, engagement is and has always been the primary success metric. For the company to move away from it onto some new standard would be a tectonic shift affecting every part of the business, from product design to ad sales.”
To ask Facebook to make their service less addictive would be like asking Exxon Mobile to switch to less efficient oil pumps: it would be a body blow to their bottom line, and investors wouldn’t tolerate it.
With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that Facebook’s reaction to the Soros speech ignored the social issues and instead focused like a laser on the significantly more tractable alternative of the political issues.
In more detail, a few days after this speech, Facebook initiated a series of posts on their company blog about Facebook’s potential to harm democracy. This series includes essays from outsiders who have been publicly critical about Facebook’s impact on the political process.
As Facebook explains: “We did this because serious discussion of these issues cannot occur without robust debate.”
This move is not purely an effort to confront Facebook’s problems, it is, I suspect, in large part a desperate attempt to distract the media and public from the social issues that Facebook knows it cannot resolve without inflecting serious self-harm.
Outrage-provoking political content might have been good business for Facebook, but in its absence, this company’s attention engineers can tap into any number of other distraction wells to keep users compulsively tapping the little blue icon on their phone.
In other words, fixing Facebook’s negative impacts on democracy won’t necessarily hurt their bottom line, while admitting that their business relies on a foundation of addiction and exploitation definitely would.
It’s no surprise then that we’re hearing so much about the former and only silence on the latter.
Making Facebook good for democracy is not entirely altruistic. It is, in many ways, also a smoke screen meant to obscure the fundamental reality that this service, like many social media products, depends for its very survival on its ability to exploit its users’ time and attention.