Why big tech companies are losing people’s trust
Last month, the United States Congress asked Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, to testify in open hearings. The media, politicians and the public were beginning to complain that Facebook might be selling the personal data of its users, allowing political organizations to manipulate the views of users through targeted messaging, and even manipulating political messaging itself through selective sharing of posts and links. Over two days in Washington, he answered these accusations against his social media behemoth.
Though there have been no accusations of illegal behavior, public anger toward social media and big tech firms has clearly grown in the United States. They are not trusted. Young people, in particular, have reason to be concerned about the large amount of personal data and communications we share with social media and search engine companies. This data stays on the servers and could be retrieved to harm us in the future.
For example, three weeks ago, a very successful amateur American football player named Josh Allen was preparing to enter the premier professional association, the National Football League. He was only a couple of days away from being drafted by an NFL team when someone began retweeting tweets he wrote as an adolescent. Some of them could be construed as racist and some were vulgar. There was a quick response on social media and in the traditional sports media, with many people attacking Allen, even though he had written these tweets when he was only 14 and 15 years old.
Ultimately, Allen was drafted as the seventh overall pick, so he did well despite the uncovering of his childhood tweeting. However, the Allen brouhaha was just another reminder that what we put on social media is there forever, and it is no longer ours. Young people must worry about the trove of information that will be stored on the internet across their entire lives. No one wants to have their words, actions or photos come back to haunt them years or even decades later.
It is scary to think that we have willingly surrendered information about our personal lives, from Facebook posts to Instagram photos to the location of our cell phone. But it is also scary to think that Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet and just a handful of others may be influencing the way we think about the world
Ellen R. Wald
In the US we also see the massive computer installations of the National Security Agency. The NSA is a government intelligence agency with the ability to intercept digital communications around the world. The thought of the government obtaining a warrant from the special intelligence courts and then spying on our social media, email, SMS texting, or phone use is terrifying. And, even if the government does not do it, there is the ubiquitous fear that Facebook, Apple or Alphabet (the parent company of Google) will. Facebook and others have been advertising on television in the US to tell us they will do better at protecting our privacy and our information but, to some extent, these ads only remind us of why we are concerned.
It is scary to think that we have willingly surrendered information about our personal lives, from Facebook posts to Instagram photos to the location of our cell phone. But it is also scary to think that Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet and a just a handful of others may be influencing the way we think about the world.
The news media in the US has a long and respected history. Before America was even an independent country, almost every city had at least one newspaper. Many cities had two or more. Often a newspaper would admit its viewpoint or political affiliation from its name. For instance, the Springfield Republican was founded in 1824 in the small Massachusetts city of Springfield. It became influential in the founding of the Republican Party, the party of the current president, Donald Trump. But people knew that if they were reading the Springfield Republican they would see a certain viewpoint. That was fine, because they could buy another newspaper with an opposing viewpoint.
Now Facebook, Twitter and other tech firms have seemingly distorted the free exchange of ideas. Starting a couple of months ago, serious accusations were heaved at Facebook, claiming its newsfeed suppressed articles from politically conservative sources. These are news sources that are typically friendlier to Trump’s Republican Party. YouTube (a subsidiary of Alphabet) has been accused many times of suppressing videos that were politically unpalatable to its executives. Politically conservative Twitter users recently alleged that the company was deleting some of their followers under the guise of purging fake accounts.
Congress has gone after Facebook and others for publishing political advertisements from Russians during the last presidential election. It is not illegal for Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet or anyone else to publish an advertisement from foreigners, but it feels wrong to the American public. Americans see our elections as sacred. It is irrelevant to Americans whether the small number of foreign ads had any impact on the election or whether they even favored one candidate over another. Americans are grappling with how the new social media can influence opinions.
Before the internet, Americans got their news from diverse sources, and generally understood the biases involved. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of adult Americans get news from Facebook, 18 percent from YouTube, and 11 percent from Twitter. These companies have a frightening amount of influence over what we learn and think. When coupled with the control these companies have over our data, it all seems wrong. That’s why Americans are growing increasingly distrustful of big tech and social media.
But you can still follow me on Twitter.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank, and the president of Transversal Consulting. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy