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Spying on Big Tech Is Better Than Breaking It Up

Spying on Big Tech Is Better Than Breaking It Up

Friday, 14 January, 2022 - 04:45

Over the years, as social media companies gorged themselves on the data of billions of people to fuel vast profits, the information flow never went the other way. Now the tables are turning.

One of the most promising pieces of legislation in Congress tackling tech giants’ undue influence, out of reportedly 30 or so bills, would force such firms to share data about how people use their platforms. Sure, that doesn’t have same ring to it as “breaking up Big Tech,” but it could be quicker and more effective at stopping hate speech and political divisiveness from spreading on social media. Putting a spotlight on exactly what people are viewing and why could guide regulators to solutions and harness the power of public pressure and outrage. Think of the impact of Facebook’s whistle-blower Frances Haugen and multiply that several times over.

Governments are engaged in an array of efforts to rein in tech giants; US antitrust regulators were given a green light this week to pursue a lawsuit against Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. that could lead to its breakup. That could take years, though, and doesn’t deal directly with the psychological harms caused by the sites.

Under the proposed legislation, researchers and journalists would get anonymized user data to study in detail how hate speech, conspiracy theories and more spread across social media. They would follow strict procedures to process the data on tech firms’ premises, potentially having every keystroke recorded. Companies that hold back from sharing such data would be penalized.

The impact of the Facebook Papers shows why examining this data could be so powerful. Haugen shared thousands of internal documents with publications including the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg to show the extent to which Facebook knew, for instance, about the toll Instagram was taking on the mental health of teenagers. The revelations were a bombshell. Academics had been studying the effects of social media on teens for years, but nobody had information directly from Facebook’s own researchers, and Haugen was the first person to provide that.

But the world can’t rely on whistle-blowers, and Facebook appears to have clamped down on internal research on side effects anyway. So the next step is to let outsiders in. The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, known colloquially as PATA and sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons and Rob Portman, creates an avenue for academics to study user activity on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram; Alphabet’s YouTube; Twitter Inc.; ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok; and others in more detail than they ever could before.

The bill also provides some access to an even wider array of interested parties including nonprofit organizations, according to Brandon Silverman, who is helping the senators on the nuts and bolts of the bill. Silverman is the founder of a social analytics tool called CrowdTangle that Facebook bought in 2016. He left the company last year.

The data would cover millions of people, broken down by factors such as age, approximate location, gender and race,(1) and get matched with the content these groups are viewing. The findings should help researchers assess how and why something like hate speech draws in users.

Such concrete data could turn accepted wisdom on its head. Critics of Facebook, for instance, often say that the site’s most troubled users fall down conspiracy rabbit holes because algorithms recommend such content to them. But what if Facebook’s algorithms don’t always work that way? What if people visit YouTube expressly to find videos about flat-Earth theory?

“What’s happening is people are arriving on YouTube by seeing something on Twitter or Facebook, and they’re actually searching for it,” said Nate Persily, the James B. McClatchy professor of law at Stanford Law School, who designed the framework on which PATA is based. “People who want to research QAnon, they go to YouTube because that’s where the videos are.”

Regulators and advocacy groups can’t pressure Facebook to change anything if they don’t know exactly why so many people have viewed QAnon or anti-vaccine posts on those sites, Persily said. That’s why evidence-gathering is so critical. “Right now we only have glimpses,” he added.

For all its revelations, Haugen’s research dump barely scratched the surface of the most troubling activity on social media. It couldn’t show exactly how a minority of people(2) made posts about a stolen election go dangerously viral ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection last year. To find the precise activity around those outliers, researchers need huge amounts of current and historical data, including information on how people hop between different social media platforms.This would be an unprecedented glimpse into a world that social media firms have never wanted people to see. PATA, and a similar proposal in Europe that has a better chance of passing given congressional gridlock, could divulge data even more intricate than what researchers obtained from Facebook before 2018. That’s when the company shut researchers out of studying user activity on the site in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. Even with the limited insights researchers could glean then, more than 130 studies on Facebook’s side effects and activities were published before that shutdown. No similar insights into user behavior have ever been provided by YouTube or TikTok.

Online platforms and Meta in particular will argue that they have bent over backward to be transparent, even publishing regular transparency reports. But civil society groups and researchers have long rolled their eyes at their lack of useful detail. That isn’t surprising. Few large companies would willingly reveal their toll on human well-being. But being forced to look at the problem is the first step to solving it.


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