With the CEOs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook set to testify Thursday on the role social media plays in promoting the kinds of misinformation and far-right extremism that sparked the deadly Capitol attack, anti-monopoly experts are urging members of Congress not to allow the executives to divert attention away from their fundamentally nefarious business model that thrives on the spread of dangerous lies.
"False or radicalizing content is not an unfortunate byproduct of the business model. It's core to these corporations' ad-based revenue models."
—Fight Corporate Monopolies
"The tech CEOs want to talk about their content policies and moderation efforts—because they know their core business models are indefensible and toxic," Morgan Harper, senior advisor at Fight Corporate Monopolies, said ahead of the House technology subcommittee hearing, which is scheduled to begin at 12:00 pm ET.
"If lawmakers are serious about fixing these problems," Harper added, "they must focus on structural power and resist the distractions. Anything less would be a massive failure."
Watch the hearing live:
Amid intensifying scrutiny from lawmakers and growing support for forceful antitrust and regulatory action, Facebook, Twitter, and Google in recent months have taken steps purportedly aimed at stemming the flow of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19 vaccines, elections, and more.
In the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection—fueled by lies that circulated widely on social media—Facebook and Twitter banned former President Donald Trump for being the chief architect and amplifier of those lies.
But Fight Corporate Monopolies and other advocacy groups argue that such self-regulation—by design—does nothing to address the fact the Facebook, Google, and Twitter's profits depend to a significant degree on cultivating outrageous falsehoods and using invasive surveillance advertising to ensure they spread to receptive audiences.
"False or radicalizing content is not an unfortunate byproduct of the business model. It's core to these corporations' ad-based revenue models," said Fight Corporate Monopolies. "Facebook and Google's YouTube generate a substantial portion of their revenue by selling user data to advertisers—which means any social media obsession becomes a profit hub."
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Tech CEOs, the group warned, "want to talk about modest regulatory reforms that would allow them to continue operating in largely the same ways they do today. We have seen this misdirection before, after YouTube and Facebook supercharged a conspiracy theory claiming George Floyd's death was faked to reach 1.3 million viewers."
Amnesty Tech's acting deputy director Joe Westby offered a similar critique, noting that "the business model of Big Tech firms like Google and Facebook depends on capturing people's attention to generate ad revenue—to that end, the algorithms that determine what we see on Facebook's newsfeed or Google's YouTube frequently amplify discrimination and inflammatory content."
"These companies appeal to our emotions of fear and anger to keep us staring at our screens," said Westby. "This can have a devastating effect at a population scale, fueling polarization, division, or serious human rights consequences."
Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University, expressed hope that House panelists will ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg "how much money the company made off of QAnon," the far-right conspiracy theory whose adherents played a considerable role in the violent siege of the Capitol earlier this year.
I hope at today's hearing Zuckerberg puts a number on exactly how much money the company made off of QAnon. 3 billion? 2? 6?
— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) March 25, 2021
Emma Ruby-Sachs, executive director of SumOfUs, said in a statement Thursday that Facebook, Google, and Twitter's "inability to deal with the violence, hate, and disinformation they promote on their platforms shows that these companies are failing to regulate themselves."
Ahead of the House subcommittee hearing, activists with SumOfUs gathered near the U.S. Capitol and displayed cutouts of tech executives dressed as insurrectionists to stress the role their platforms played in the violent January 6 attack.
@Facebook, @Twitter, & @Google didn’t only provide the platforms for organizing the Capitol riot, but their tools, algorithms and policies directly fueled it -- which is why @SumOfUs is portraying them as key insurrectionists this morning: pic.twitter.com/c5PaizjA4A
— Andrew Nazdin (@andrewnazdin) March 25, 2021
"It's no shocker that Facebook failed to tell us about how its technology is being used to manipulate voters and spread harmful misinformation. How many times are we going to be fooled by these profit-hungry monopolies before Congress finally acts?" said Ruby-Sachs. "Letting Facebook decide how it should be regulated is like letting a criminal decide their own sentence."