News, Science, Technology 2016-05-12

Facebook and Google Own You

The future is now.

In Blade Runner, the dystopian future was heavily influenced by the Tyrell Corporation, which provided artificial humans for almost any purpose.

In Robocop the Omni Consumer Products megacorporation planned on buying the entire city of Detroit and make all the citizens shareholders and employees.

In Elysium, the future was ruled by a wealthy social elite that existed above Earth in a technological Eden.

The problem is that these are not just stories. These are issues that we’re facing today. While the world watches Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battle for the American throne, Google, Facebook and the tech community in general are in the trenches affecting our lives right now. Read on for more.

Elysium

Let’s move from the general to the specific. In Elysium, the financial, political and social elite lived in a space station called Elysium which catered to their every need. The rest of humanity was forced to toil on Earth, living a filthy and desperate existence. Science fiction, yes, but the tech community has been working hard to make it happen.

The “Anti-Tech” backlash happened a few years ago, but the cause is unlikely to just up and disappear. San Francisco, previously a bastion of progressive ideas, found its citizens being pushed out of their homes and increasingly stratified in a state of haves and have-nots. Here’s a couple choice quotes from the New York Times:

“These billion-dollar companies should help ameliorate the impact they’re having,” Mr. Peskin said. “They can afford to do a lot more. So far, it’s only window-dressing. They can volunteer to be decent.”

“There are valid concerns that San Francisco is becoming a plutocracy,” said Donna Burke, an entrepreneur and investor. “Silicon Valley traditionally valued changing the world over money. We need to get back to that ethos.” … None of the San Franciscans interviewed for this article said they wished any harm to tech workers, but they lamented what they saw as a high degree of cluelessness.

SFGate, another publication, makes the point a little finer:

“Like most corporations and industries in their infancy, they are rightly concerned about making money and hitting their marks,” Singer said. “But they’re at a stage now that they’re beyond that initial stage of survival. And they need to be more socially aware.”

Some neighbors say the resentment isn’t helped by the fact that they see the tech workers only when they’re boarding the private shuttle buses that take them down Highway 101 to Google or Apple, delaying Muni buses and blocking traffic while they’re at it.

“They don’t see them active in the local school or helping the local merchants or helping with the local playground,” Campos said.

Of course, it doesn’t help that tech companies attempting to repair their image do so in such a hackneyed way. Take, for example, Google’s response to protests about how it was blocking traffic with its shuttles:

… San Franciscans turned out for a noisy public hearing to assail a pilot program to charge the shuttles a small fee for using city bus stops. They demanded that the city address the growing economic inequality.

The hearing came just hours after dozens of protesters blocked a bus bound for Google and another bound for Facebook for about 45 minutes, hanging a sign on one that read “Gentrification & Eviction Technologies.”

Before the hearing, a Google memo gave employees who spoke at the meeting talking points to show how involved they were in the community, such as “I support local and small businesses in my neighborhood on a regular basis.”

“This is what it looks like when the most powerful entity in the history of the Internet starts to realize people hate its guts,” Alexia Tsotsis, co-editor of TechCrunch, wrote on the blog.

Things are changing, but this isn’t restricted to the tech community or San Francisco alone. Los Angeles is facing its own crisis in which building developers and businesses are driving local residents out of the neighborhood. In Boyle Heights in particular, there is a developing backlash that some are worried will turn to violence.

So there you have it. Elysium is real, just not in space. Will a sci-fi hero come to save the day? Probably not. Money doesn’t just talk, it persuades.

Tyrell and Omni Consumer Products

While it’s unlikely that Google or Facebook will buy a city or supply us all with Replicants, they’re getting very close. In the section above, you read about how Google’s actions began affecting the city of San Francisco. The reality is, however, that neither Google nor Facebook need to purchase a city. In the words of Nelson Rockerfeller, “The secret to success is to own nothing, but control everything”. And with that, lets turn to an article from Politico:

… Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections—indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs—than any company in history has ever had. Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more—up to 80 percent in some demographic groups—with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated …

There are at least three very real scenarios whereby Google—perhaps even without its leaders’ knowledge—could shape or even decide the election next year. Whether or not Google executives see it this way, the employees who constantly adjust the search giant’s algorithms are manipulating people every minute of every day. The adjustments they make increasingly influence our thinking—including, it turns out, our voting preferences.

This isn’t theoretical, either. Google actually affected the election results in India:

… in an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 eligible, undecided voters throughout India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election there—the largest democratic election in history, with more than 800 million eligible voters and 480 million votes ultimately cast. Even here, with real voters who were highly familiar with the candidates and who were being bombarded with campaign rhetoric every day, we showed that search rankings could boost the proportion of people favoring any candidate by more than 20 percent—more than 60 percent in some demographic groups.

Given how powerful this effect is, it’s possible that Google decided the winner of the Indian election.

Of course, we can’t leave Facebook out of the equation. Here’s a juicy quote from Wired:

During the 2010 US congressional elections, researchers at Facebook exposed 61 million users to a message exhorting them to vote—it didn’t matter for whom—and found they were able to generate 340,000 extra votes across the board.

Further, it’s been acknowledged that employees in Facebook want to take a more active role in shaping public opinion. Gizmodo released an article discussing how Facebook employees put forward a poll to pressure Mark Zuckerberg to okay a plan to stop Trump from being elected. Here’s an important quote:

But what’s exceedingly important about this question being raised—and Zuckerberg’s answer, if there is one—is how Facebook now treats the powerful place it holds in the world. It’s unprecedented. More than 1.04 billion people use Facebook. It’s where we get our news, share our political views, and interact with politicians. It’s also where those politicians are spending a greater share of their budgets.

And Facebook has no legal responsibility to give an unfiltered view of what’s happening on their network.

“Facebook can promote or block any material that it wants,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told Gizmodo. “Facebook has the same First Amendment right as the New York Times. They can completely block Trump if they want. They can block him or promote him.” But the New York Times isn’t hosting pages like Donald Trump for President or Donald Trump for President 2016, the way Facebook is.

Of course, Zuckerberg and Facebook are quick to point out a lack of bias on their part, but this can’t really be true given the company’s size and access to technology and influence. In fact, there was actually a Senate inquiry on this, which you can read about at Salon.com. Beyond that, Facebook has shown an interest and willingness to manipulate people as recently as a couple years ago when it tried to manipulate user emotions by controlling the news feed.

So there you have it. The power is there, the willingness is there and, when the time comes, the interest will be there. The future is now. Google and Facebook own your lives and control your thoughts. Welcome to the new age!

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.