Friday, September 18, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role of compliance officers and general counsel working for Big Pharma in Where Were the Gatekeepers- Part 1. As a former compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I wondered how and if those in-house sentinels were raising alarm bells about safety concerns related to rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public. Now that I’ve watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” I’m wondering the same thing about the lawyers and compliance professionals working for the social media companies.
The documentary features some of the engineers and executives behind the massive success of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, is the star of the documentary and the main whistleblower. He raised concerns to 60 Minutes in 2017 and millions have watched his TED Talk. He also testified before Congress in 2019 about how social media companies use algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate behavior. Human rights organizations have accused social media platforms of facilitating human rights abuses. Facebook and others have paid billions in fines for privacy violations. Advertisers boycotted over Facebook and hate speech. But nothing has slowed their growth.
The documentary explicitly links the rising rate of youth depression, suicide, and risk taking behavior to social media’s disproportionate influence. Most of my friends who have watched it have already decreased their screen time or at least have become more conscious of it. Maybe they are taking a cue from those who work for these companies but don’t allow their young children to have any screen time. Hmmm …
I’ve watched the documentary twice. Here are some of the more memorable quotes:
”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”
“They sell certainty that someone will see your advertisement.”
“It’s not our data that’s being sold. They are building models to predict our actions based on the click, what emotions trigger you, what videos you will watch.”
“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
“Social media is a drug.”
”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”
”The very meaning of culture is manipulation.”
“Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”
“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.”
“When you go to Google and type in “climate change is,” you will get a different result based on where you live … that’s a function of … the particular things Google knows about your interests.”
“It’s 2.7 billion Truman Show. Each person has their own reality, their own facts.”
“It worries me that an algorithm I worked on is increasing polarization in society.”
“Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news.”
“People have no idea what is true and now it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true no matter what issue we care about.”
“If you want to control the operation of a country, there’s never been a better tool than Facebook.”
"The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose."
“What [am I] most worried about? In the short term horizon? Civil War.”
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix”?
“You could shut down the service and destroy . . . $20 billion in shareholder value and get sued, but you can’t in practice put the genie back in the model.”
“We need to accept that it’s ok for companies to be focused on making money but it’s not ok when there’s no regulation, no rules, and no competition and companies are acting as de facto governments and then saying ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ “
“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change.”
This brings me back to the beginning of my post. We’ve heard from former investors, engineers, and algorithm magicians from these companies, but where were and are the gatekeepers? What were they doing to sound the alarm? But maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As Ann Lipton’s provocative post on Doyle, Watson, and the Purpose of the Corporation notes, “Are you looking at things from outside the corporation, in terms of structuring our overall legal and societal institutions? Or are you looking at things from inside the corporation, in terms of how corporate managers should understand their jobs and their own roles?”
If you’re a board member or C-Suite executive of a social media company, you have to ask yourself, what if hate speech, fake news, polarization, and addiction to your product are actually profitable? What if perpetuating rumors that maximize shareholder value is the right decision? Why would you change a business model that works for the shareholders even if it doesn’t work for the rest of society? If social media is like a drug, it’s up to parents to instill the right values in their children. I get it. But what about the lawyers and the people in charge of establishing, promoting, and maintaining an ethical culture? To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to impugn the integrity of lawyers and compliance professionals who work for social media companies. I have met several at business and human rights events and privacy conferences who take the power of the tech industry very seriously and advocate for change.
The social media companies have a dilemma. Compliance officers talk about “tone at the top,” “mood in the middle,” and the “buzz at the bottom.” Everyone in the organization has to believe in the ethical mandate as laid out and modeled by leadership. Indeed, CEOs typically sign off on warm, fuzzy statements about ethical behavior in the beginning of the Code of Conduct. I’ve drafted quite a few and looked at hundreds more. Notably, Facebook’s Code of Conduct, updated just a few weeks ago, has no statement of principle from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seems very lawyerlike. Perhaps there’s a more robust version that employees can access where Zuckerberg extols company values. Twitter’s code is slightly better and touches more on ethical culture. Google’s Code states, “Our products, features, and services should make Google more useful for all our users. We have many different types of users, from individuals to large businesses, but one guiding principle: “Is what we are offering useful?”’ My question is “useful” to whom? I use Google several times a day, but now I have to worry about what Google chooses to show me. What's my personal algorithm? I’ve been off of Facebook and Instagram since January 2020 and I have no plans to go back.
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman uttered the famous statement, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The social media companies have written the rules of the game. There is no competition. Now that the “Social Dilemma” is out, there really isn’t any more deception or fraud.
Do the social media companies actually have a social responsibility to do better? In 2012, Facebook’s S-1 proclaimed that the company’s mission was to “make the world more open and connected.” Facebook’s current Sustainability Page claims that, “At Facebook, our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Why is it, then that in 2020, people seem more disconnected than ever even though they are tethered to their devices while awake and have them in reach while asleep? Facebook’s sustainability strategy appears to be centered around climate change and supply chain issues, important to be sure. But is it doing all that it can for the sustainability of society? Does it have to? I have no answer for that. All I can say is that you should watch the documentary and judge for yourself.