It’s difficult for me to get excited about the latest deluge of damning revelations about the myriad deleterious side effects of using Facebook.
I realize that quite a bit of the current debate centers around the impact of the company’s products on minors, so it’s not quite as simple as waving away the controversy by reference to users’ willful disregard for their own psychological well-being.
Still, as I sifted through various media coverage detailing findings from a trove of internal documents provided to 17 US news outlets by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen and a congressional staff member, I couldn’t help but ask, aloud, “How is this surprising to anyone?” Or, better, “Why is nobody asking the right questions?”
While the media took the usual angles on the way to writing the usual articles (feigning incredulity at Facebook’s internal failings and thirst for profits), the real story was left to the subtext. I’ll touch on it briefly while not pretending to offer anything like a definitive assessment.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and, I imagine, many other social networks, are in no small part responsible for the demise of civic-mindedness in America, an ironic outcome considering their ostensible mission is to bring people closer together in one way or another.
As grave an allegation as that is, undermining Americans’ sense of social responsibility is actually the least of social media’s sins. Twitter has all but destroyed civil discourse, for example, while simultaneously working to reinforce the trend towards shorter and shorter attention spans to the detriment of long-form writing, already a lost art. And Facebook’s impact goes well beyond the ironic perpetuation of community decline. Arguably, the company is eroding democracy itself and may have already done irreparable damage to America’s fraying social fabric.
But even those allegations don’t quite get at the existential issue.
Over and over since 2016 (and really, before that), experts hailing from academic, tech and national security circles alleged social media platforms (Facebook especially) were derelict in many of the responsibilities implicitly associated with controlling vast stores of personal data and, more importantly, the capacity to leverage that data in the service of manipulating users on behalf of third parties.
In most cases, the third parties are advertisers. In that respect, Facebook is just perpetuating the advertising business, the goal of which has always been to influence consumer preferences. But even there, you could argue that Facebook’s capacity to target consumers based on an algorithm’s assessment of users’ interactions with the site breaches unwritten ethical rules or, at the least, gives us a window into a future in which algorithms and artificial intelligence know us better than we know ourselves, and certainly better than any ad executive will ever know us.
In other cases, the third parties are propagandists, politicians or state-actors pursuing objectives that aren’t always clear, even to Facebook. Indeed, the algorithm presents third parties with an evolving set of opportunities over time. It’s possible, for example, that a state-actor establishes an influence campaign on Facebook with one goal in mind, only to have the algorithm open new doors along the way, not because it’s self-aware, but because it’s simply doing its job.
We make movies about AI gone rogue, but in reality, the danger is that it acts slavishly at the behest of whoever wields it, surfacing new opportunities for its master as it learns in real-time. It doesn’t “know” what it’s doing. It has no independent sense of purpose, no ulterior motives and no goals, other than to optimize around itself.
Consider, for example, the following excerpts from an internal Facebook memo on “collateral damage”:
We… have compelling evidence that our core product mechanics, such as vitality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why these types of speech flourish on the platform.
If integrity takes a hands-off stance for these problems, whether for technical (precision) or philosophical reasons, then the net result is that Facebook, taken as a whole, will be actively (if not necessarily consciously) promoting these types of activities. The mechanics of our platform are not neutral.
The paradox is that just as this isn’t the algorithm’s “fault,” nor is it Mark Zuckerberg’s. Not entirely, anyway. He could fix it, but it’s not as simple as people make it sound.
When Zuckerberg wrote, earlier this month, that “I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that’s being painted,” he was probably being at least somewhat sincere. As The New York Times put it Monday, “as the company has confronted crisis after crisis on misinformation, privacy and hate speech, a central issue has been whether the basic way that the platform works has been at fault — essentially, the features that have made Facebook be Facebook.”
In essence, Facebook (the company) no longer controls Facebook. Facebook (the AI) controls Facebook. But not quite in the fashion of a scifi-horror crossover flick. The algorithm evolves and learns, but it doesn’t think for itself. Unless and until its creators instruct it to follow a moral code or adhere to specific philosophical dictates, it’ll continue to become more efficient at doing what it’s already doing.
Trying to fix ostensible problems with ad hoc solutions (i.e., without adjusting what Facebook calls its “core product mechanics”) is an exercise in futility. The same goes for hiring humans to police outcomes dictated by the algorithm. After all these years, the AI has surely embedded itself across the platform in myriad ways even Zuckerberg can’t begin to understand.
Who’s to say, for instance, that the algorithm doesn’t detect efforts on the company’s part to curtail the spread of certain kinds of content, then immediately craft a workaround (on its own) because it judges such efforts to be inconsistent with its original mission, which remains mostly unadjusted?
You can posit any number of similar scenarios in which the AI, in an effort to fulfill its mission, actively circumvents intervention. It wouldn’t necessarily be clear to Facebook executives how, or when, this is happening. It’s not even obvious that Facebook executives know what the algorithm’s mission is by now. Or at least not beyond some initial set of goals the AI was instructed to pursue via whatever it learns along the road to optimizing performance. To correct this, Facebook could install parameters (specific instructions) that rule out certain avenues seen as conducive to unacceptable outcomes. But there’s no evidence the company has done that or intends to.
Facebook (the company) is on the brink of failing what might one day be viewed as the first real test of humans’ capacity to merge with AI. Ideally, we can seamlessly integrate algorithms we create with the algorithms that govern our own biochemical processes. That’s essentially what we’re doing when we let, for example, an Apple Watch measure the oxygen level of our blood.
Facebook is arguably demonstrating that this integration process can go awry, with disastrous results. The algorithm is using what it learns about billions of people to help third parties manipulate human emotions and affect decision making. The company’s intent may very well be to maximize engagement and, ultimately, revenue. But the AI’s virtually unrestricted latitude in pursuing engagement is throwing off more than just dollars. It’s wreaking psychological havoc, disrupting democracies and undermining societal cohesion. The evidence is clear.
The standard criticism (that the company prizes profits over the well-being of its users) may be apt, but you’d have a difficult time identifying a company as financially successful as Facebook that doesn’t put profits over people.
The more important line of criticism should focus on the extent to which Facebook doesn’t fully understand the gravity of the experiment it’s running, let alone the ramifications of allowing it to continue without reprogramming the AI so that it adheres to a new set of instructions.
On Monday, Facebook said daily active users across the company’s network rose to 2.81 billion in September. The company brought in $29 billion in revenue during the third quarter.