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What Facebook Can’t Fix
When people lose faith in institutions, they gravitate to misinformation. It's time to address the trust vacuum.
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This week, I tried to hold two stories in my head at once. The first was President Biden’s remark that Facebook was “killing people” by allowing vaccine misinformation to spread. The second was the newly revealed detail that Curtis Wright, the FDA director who oversaw the agency’s approval of OxyContin, went on to work for the opioid’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, for an annual salary of approximately $400,000.
The two stories together remind that misinformation propagates online for two reasons, yet one is regularly overlooked. The first and most obvious is that social media, its algorithms, and its content moderation policies provide an ideal environment for false information to spread. The second is that these lies take hold when the public loses faith in the institutions meant to keep it safe. When FDA directors are paid off after approving a drug that contributes to the deaths of thousands, people will become susceptible to false claims that the vaccines it authorizes are harmful too. Facebook’s algorithms might mitigate that damage, but they can hardly reverse it.
Stories like Wright’s big payday — where institutions and their leaders harm those they supposedly serve — are so common today they’re almost dull. Take the widespread tax avoidance among the rich that ProPublica examined. Or the college admissions scandal, where the perpetrators faced almost no consequences. Or the widespread government spying that our business leaders enabled, which is largely a footnote in An Ugly Truth. Then, of course, there’s the government nodding along as the opioid crisis worsened under its watch. We had more than 90,000 drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, an increase of more than 20,000 from the year prior. This is just an abbreviated list.
Americans’ faith in institutions is now falling across the board, according to Gallup. Confidence in organized religion, labor, big business, public schools, newspapers, the military, the presidency, the medical system, banks, TV news, the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court, and Congress all fell from 2020 to 2021. Covid and a certain ex-president’s attacks on institutions had something to do with it. But they don’t account for the entire decline.
While Facebook does help accelerate the spread of misinformation, it’s the absence of trust in institutions that helps it take root in the first place. People who spread fake news on Facebook often understand the stories are dubious, yet they do it because it confirms their biases. It is, therefore, astounding how rarely conversations about misinformation extend beyond interrogation of the tech platforms. We almost always stop right before asking, “What biases are these false stories confirming?”
Ultimately, Mark Zuckerberg is — and will always be — a good target to beat up on. He and his service aren’t free of blame. But as long as Facebook gets all of the incoming fire, those responsible for the decline in public trust will sit back, smile, and continue to diminish it.
Meet Big Technology’s Headline Sponsor: Flatfile
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Some in government believe they can solve the vaccine misinformation issue by taking away legal protections from Facebook and other internet platforms. This approach, as noted above, addresses the symptoms instead of the root of the issue. But it does point to a broader movement to strip tech platforms of their legal immunity for what users say on their service. It seems inevitable that lawmakers will, at some point, hold them responsible for what shows up in their feeds.
You have to hand it to Twitter for its work promoting healthy conversations on its platform. Getting into discussions on Twitter still sucks, mostly. But the company is trying everything — from a Clubhouse clone to this week’s experiment with voting on comments — to improve. That counts for something.
Biden to Name a Critic of Big Tech as the Top Antitrust Cop (New York Times)
President Biden took six months to name his choice to run the Depart of Justice’s antitrust division. Then, he reeled in the big one. Jonathan Kanter, a longtime thorn in the side of Big Tech, is the pick. If he makes it through, the Biden White House will have a murder’s row in place in its aggressive attack on Big Tech. The opponents of Big Tech are absolutely thrilled with the pick. As one reporter put it, “They got the whole mug.”
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This week on Big Technology Podcast: The Definitive WeWork Story — With Eliot Brown And Maureen Farrell
Eliot Brown And Maureen Farrell are the authors of The Cult of We: WeWork and the Great Start-Up Delusion. The new book digs into the rise and fall of Adam Neumann's WeWork. And though it's the story of one company, it's really a lens through which you can see all the markets' irrationality. The authors join for a macro discussion of the factors that led WeWork — a real estate company — to become the world's most valuable "tech" startup. And why it couldn't keep the show rolling.
Thanks again for reading. See you next Thursday!