Structural Problems With For-Profit Social Media

Filed under: technology
By: Daniel Moch
March 22 2018 16:30

Many of you who know me personally know that I've become increasingly concerned with online privacy over the past few years. It's a topic that is near and dear to my heart, because I think the privacy, including online privacy, is very important to a healthy civic life. I hope to write a lot more about that going forward, but for now I want to introduce you to someone whose work I'm only beginning to dig into myself, but who has an awful lot of really smart things to say on the topic of online privacy (among other things): Zeynep Tufekci.

I spare you my attempt at a mini-biography, mostly because I'm about the least qualified person in the world to deliver. Rather, I'll point you to this TED talk that she did October of last year where she talks about the infrastructure that companies like Facebook and YouTube control and how much they're able to do with the data they collect on us.

Here are a couple of quotes a took down as I was listening:

  • It's not that the people that run Facebook or Google are maliciously and deliberately trying to make the world more polarized and encourage extremism. ... But it's not the intent and the statements that [these folks] are making that matter; it's the structures and the business models they are building.
  • Either Facebook is a half-a-trillion dollar con and ads don't work on the site ... or it's power of influence is of great concern.

Her prescription seems on point: "We need a digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the highest bidding authoritarian or demagogue." That's actually just the sound-bite synopsis of her more nuanced call for businesses, consumers, and governments all to work together to determine what our collective vision is for all of the algorithmic magic (read: artificial intelligence) underlying these systems, how they should operate, and the moral systems that ultimately must be coded into them.

Evangelical Christians in the circles I run in have begun in the past few years to seriously confront the fact that cultural structures often exist to keep the powerful in power. I think a lot of us are going to have to take a look at what has grown out of the combination of free markets and the internet have caused to grow up, and then have a very serious discussion about what might need to change.


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