5 Ugly Truths About Big Tech
There has been a growing backlash against “big tech” companies. As we continue to experience increasing political polarization and with the ongoing spread of mis/disinformation since the pandemic, this burgeoning “techlash” is likely to continue. For example, the Pew Research Center recently reported that a growing number of concerns among users include: privacy intrusion, disinformation campaigns, and cybersecurity risks (West, 2021). Confidence in technology is said to be 57% among Americans surveyed last year, compared to 78% in 2012 (West, 2021).
The big tech companies that dominate our consumer experiences when using digital devices include the Metaverse – formerly known as Facebook – which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, Google (which also owns YouTube), Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Facebook, in particular, has an outsized influence when we browse online because two of the three platforms with the most active users come from its platforms.
Below is my list of the top 5 user experience facts that the creators of Big Tech don’t want us to know:
Technology is not neutral
It is perhaps the most persistent mythology perpetuated by these companies, that technology itself is neutral and that it is what we do with our devices and on digital spaces that impacts whether its effects are positive or not. Such a mantra is problematic in that it places the onus on individual users regarding their online experiences, so that if a user becomes radicalized, the creators of the digital spaces who contributed to this radicalization process are able to spread any responsibility. Moreover, when looking at the central role that algorithms play in determining our experiences in any digital space, the notion of neutrality is laughable.
First, the artificial intelligence (AI) that drives the algorithms is rooted in history, biases, disparities, and other issues. For an excellent analysis of how the implicit biases promoting sexism, racism and other disparities between groups are ingrained in AI, I direct readers to the documentary now available on Netflix Coded bias.
Social media platforms often process their algorithms in a way that generates more engagement – and therefore profitability – which supersedes other concerns, such as the accuracy of what a user is exposed to or what users feel, by the content that is higher on their feed or they are directed to.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen also presented internal documents revealing that content angering users generated more engagement, even when users were questioned after being exposed to such content and declared not to like the content. Such practices have also impacted Facebook’s policy on how much advertisers are charged for their content. For exposure to Haugen’s published findings, I refer readers to Wall Street Journal articles collectively titled “The Facebook Files”, many of which are by Horowitz (2021).
Social media platforms like Facebook subsidize hate. As an extension of the first hard truth, this results in prominent social media platforms essentially amplifying and inciting hate speech for profit. This fact is explicitly acknowledged by Facebook insiders. For example, one of the documents released by the whistleblower bluntly identifies: “We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech, and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps affect corporations. worldwide” (as cited by Cranz & Brandom, 2021, § 7).
Haugen says the root of the problem lies in the algorithms rolled out in 2018 that govern what you see on the platform. According to her, they are supposed to drive engagement and the company has found that the best engagement is the one that instills fear and hatred in users (Cranz & Brandom, 2021, para. 8).
Such discoveries are directly linked to the groups that dominate the leadership in Big Tech, in addition to having a significant impact on the psychology of users when they are on their digital devices.
Silicon Valley has a hostile culture towards women and minorities. Not surprisingly, women and other minorities are underrepresented in Big Tech. Men hold around 76% of tech jobs, with 95% of the tech workforce being white (Change, 2018). This disparity in sex and gender representation and other important demographics has created an environment in Silicon Valley that often fosters toxic masculinity and is unwelcome for women and other minorities. This has huge implications for the biases embedded in AI that drives algorithms, as only about 15% of people working in AI are women.
Additionally, women leave tech jobs at twice the rate of their male counterparts, and the gender pay gap for computer programming is five times greater than in other industries (Chang, 2018). The disparities are even worse when looking at women of color (WOC) and other minority groups. Such disparities continue to perpetuate, as Big Tech often sees the same leaders or influencers move from one platform or position to another. For example, the vast majority of venture capitalists, who have significant influence over backed technology companies, are men, and they tend to fund male-led companies (Chang, 2018).
The lack of representation of women and other minority groups at the highest echelons of power in Big Tech translates into user experience, with the sites that harbor the most vicious trolls and harassment of women also being those started by men. whites. Everything from the size of our digital gadgets to the default bodies that are used as models for what constitutes “health” on apps or an average face have been designed to a size and scale that is suitable and better suited to users. masculine.
Using social media is bad for mental health. One of the most high-profile findings from the Haugen revelations was that Facebook insiders had research proving Instagram use was harmful to teenage girls’ mental health, but no action was put in place. To protect them.
Over the past three years, Facebook has conducted studies on how its photo-sharing app Instagram affects its millions of young users. On several occasions, the company’s researchers have found that Instagram is harmful to a significant percentage of them, especially teenage girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls,” said a 2019 slide, summarizing research on teenage girls who experience these issues. “Teens blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety and depression,” another slide said. (Wells, Horwitz and Seetharaman, 2021, paras. 6-8).
In fact, such a conclusion directly contradicts the testimony that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself gave during congressional hearings.
Big Tech spends a lot of money lobbying Congress to promote its interests. Prior to techlash, Big Tech executives lobbied Congress to prevent any significant regulation or change to the way they do business. The Washington Post – ironically now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – reports that in 2021, the seven largest tech companies spent $70 million lobbying Congress, which exceeds the amount they had spent the previous year (Zakrzewski, 2022). In fact, the article goes on to identify that Big Tech now spends about three times what it used to spend lobbying Congress, making it one of the most influential industries (Zakrzewski, 2022).
With all of these hard truths stacked against tech consumers, is it really fair to say that tech’s problems can simply be solved by taking individual users responsible for what they do online?