Technical Difficulties: Too Big To Care

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This week in a special Saturday edition of Technical Difficulties: Facebook faces the music; Google ham-handedly proves its critics’ point; vaccine misinformation is [and this is true] bad; and more.

TOO BIG TO CARE

Facebook is in trouble. In a pair of newly filed antitrust lawsuits, 48 attorneys general and the federal government accused Facebook of being an illegal monopoly, and called for the company to unwind its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

There is much to debate about the nuances of the case, the hurdles regulators face, the technical feasibility of disentangling the apps, and so forth. But suffice it to say – this is a BFD.

Facebook has been obsessively accumulating power for more than a decade, razing competitive threats along the way. Without competition or accountability, they’ve become – as EU Commissioner Thierry Breton recently put it – too big to care.

Too big to care about the well-being of their users. Too big to care about privacy or transparency. Too big to care about their toxic impact on the information ecosystem and public discourse. Just, too big to care.

Now, the U.S. Government is finally putting its foot down. The case may not be perfect; it’s certainly not a panacea. But perhaps it’s strong enough to make Facebook start caring again.

  • CNN: Facebook must be broken up, the US government says in a groundbreaking lawsuit

  • NPR: 48 AGs, FTC Sue Facebook, Alleging Illegal Power Grabs To ‘Neutralize’ Rivals

  • Business Insider: Experts say the antitrust suits against Facebook may not change anything, but they’re still a ‘big deal’ and signal that the US government will no longer look the other way

  • Kara Swisher: When it Comes to Facebook, the Need for Action Has Been Obvious for a Long Time

  • Roger McNamee: “Antitrust intervention, like this suit, is an essential tool for limiting the power of corporations, but the harms from internet platforms require more, in the form of safety and privacy regulations.”

On the not caring front…

  • BuzzFeed: Facebook’s Global Ad Machine Is The Company’s $80 Billion Annual Lifeblood. Workers Say It Puts Profits Over People.

  • Protocol: How right-wing websites are getting around Facebook’s ban on political ads

  • BuzzFeed: After The US Election, Key People Are Leaving Facebook And Torching The Company In Departure Notes

  • New York Times: ‘How Many Fact Checkers Do They Have?’ | Inside the battle between Biden and Facebook.

GOOGLE’S ETHICAL LAPSE

PRO-TIP: If your company seeks to be a leader in diversity and inclusion – but is under fire for discriminatory practices ranging from hiring and workplace treatment to product design – don’t fire the Black female Co-Lead of your Ethical AI team over trying to advance these causes.

That’s exactly what Google did last week, retaliating against the prolific Dr. Timnit Gebru for questioning Google’s commitment to equity after they censored her research on how long-term AI language models could further entrench existing biases.

Dr. Gebru has earned wide respect as a leader in both ethical AI and the fight for diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley. Indeed, thousands of Google employees and academic researchers have rallied behind her in an open letter demanding the company explain its actions.

Google has apologized for the controversy, but not the firing. The entire episode only has only proven Dr. Gebru’s point, while sending a chilling message to other advocates for tech equity.

  • USA Today: Google ouster of top AI researcher Timnit Gebru draws sharp new scrutiny of how it treats Black employees

  • VentureBeat: Timnit Gebru: Google’s ‘dehumanizing’ memo paints me as an angry Black woman

  • The Verge: Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologizes for Timnit Gebru controversy but not her firing

  • Axios: Google CEO pledges to investigate exit of top AI ethicist

  • Casey Newton: The withering email that got an ethical AI researcher fired at Google

  • Wired: The Dark Side of Big Tech’s Funding for AI Research

ANTI-VACCINATION NATION

Every day it becomes more clear: one of the greatest challenges in getting past this pandemic will be overcoming vaccine hesitancy, and the disinformation machine that drives it.

Anti-vaxxers are Extremely Online, and have been successful at recruiting converts everywhere from new age parent groups and minority communities, to wellness influencers and QAnon adherents. The movement was ballooning long before COVID-19 – largely without resistance from major social media platforms – and it’s kicked into overdrive in recent months.

To make matters worse, conspiracy theorists thrive by filling the kind of information vacuums inherent to nascent health treatments like the coronavirus vaccines. Beating back the flood of anti-vaxx disinformation will require a concentrated and coordinated effort from social media platforms, government, health leaders, and beyond.

  • ABC News: “Social media posts containing vaccine misinformation not only have increased since the pandemic began, they’re more likely to coexist alongside less extreme content, effectively normalizing them and possibly delaying wider acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine, experts told ABC News.”

  • USA Today: ‘We are talking about people’s lives’: Dire warnings of public health crisis as COVID-19 vaccine misinformation rages

  • NBC News: Experts warn of low Covid vaccine trust among Black Americans

  • Axios: Exclusive: Most Americans don’t trust social media on COVID-19 vaccine info

  • The Hill: Democrats urge Biden to address ‘infodemic’ of COVID-19 disinformation, misinformation

  • Disinformation Expert Brendan Nyhan in The Atlantic: How to Build Trust in the Vaccines

POTPOURRI

  • CNN: Georgia becomes ground zero for election misinformation ahead of Senate runoff

  • Business Insider: Facebook failed to put fact-check labels on 60% of the most viral posts containing Georgia election misinformation that its own fact-checkers had debunked, a new report says

  • Ars Technica: GOP clinches 2-2 deadlock for Biden FCC as Senate approves Trump nominee

  • Politico: Tech giants to face large fines under Europe’s new content rules

  • Gizmodo: Parler’s Downloads Fell Off a Cliff

  • Wall Street Journal: Uber Sells Self-Driving-Car Unit to Autonomous-Driving Startup

  • Reuters: Australia to make Facebook, Google pay news outlets for content

  • Politico Morning Tech: Senate Democrats Fear Tech Bias Could Harm Post-Pandemic Hiring