Ethical people do unethical things; that’s human nature. We are always internally fighting against those forces that would tempt us in some negative way, and sometimes, our better angels don’t win. There are many lessons in this vein we can learn from the tech boom as a result of the widespread adoption of the internet, the single greatest communication platform humanity has ever seen.
Innovation is awarded, expansion of business, and the reach to potential customers is unparalleled online, and with success in these two comes unfathomable wealth that potentially anyone with programming skill and some foresight can achieve, regardless of previous status. However, with the drive for expansion and accumulation of wealth comes serious questions about the ethics of how to best serve the public.
Big Tech and The Drive to Decline
The lesson learned by the elite tech wealthy is that they owe society nothing in terms of helping to secure and protect the democratic norms that have made many countries successful enough to support a burgeoning billionaire class. So when you bite the hands that feed you, how do we, as the collective hand, respond? Apparently, it’s to let them keep biting us harder.
Big Tech has created the structure that has allowed anger and autocracy to thrive in the name of innovation. They finally put all the nails in democracy’s coffin. Let me explain.
The previous nails helped to erode the core of what society was in the name of progress. The Amazons of the world decimated the competing small business sector, took innovative products, and weaponized them against us. The “Alexa” voice assistant and Ring Doorbell have data mined us, our children, and our neighbors. Amazon illegally stored children’s data indefinitely, violating multiple laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
War Crimes, Genocide, Disinformation, Depression, and More Have Also Thrived Under Their Watch
Outside of illegally data mining us which made founder Mark Zuckerberg billions after he was caught, Facebook has; aided in literal war crimes, allowed genocide to occur in Myanmar, not been quick enough in policing live streams of rampaging gunmen, dropped a supercharger into foreign intelligence disinformation operations that have influenced elections around the world, harmed younger generations due to lack of policing of cyberbullying and introduced serious depression with an increase in suicides in the younger population. They also tried to cover up much of this in the name of profits.
Twitter, where civility has gone to die, was also illegally data mining its users and ramped up disinformation and anger. Now that Elon Musk has bought it and destroyed two-thirds of its value in less than a year, a once useful (though convoluted) user verification system was dismantled in favor of anyone who wanted to pay for verification without verifying. This led to a pharmaceutical stock market disaster after a fake but “verified” account that looked like the company declared to the world that insulin would be free from now on, which lost them billions of dollars in a single day. Spoofing of notable people and brands has been rampant, with a more recent case involving a sitting member of the U.S. Congress, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, successfully impersonated by a “verified” account.
Bots, often controlled by foreign governments, run rampant across these platforms. Yet, they’re somewhat reticent to stop it as the bots inflate the perceived numbers of users on the platform, which, in turn, motivates companies to advertise on their platforms. In the age of Generative A.I., those bots will be even harder to spot and mimic human behavior to the point where we may lose our reality.
The Acceleration of Society’s Death Spiral
We’ve been backsliding on social norms, decorum, discourse, and democracy for a few decades, but Big Tech is speeding this up like a drunk driver careening toward a tree.
Historically, these companies have little checks beyond infrequent slap-on-the-wrist government oversight. They all have ethics and safety teams dedicated to combating all of the negatives mentioned above, and this is where the final nail gets pounded in. During the pandemic, Big Tech went on a hiring spree to keep up with the demands of a growing user base working from home. Now that the world is past, or at least settled into the pandemic, the firings have started due to shareholder demand for better efficiency (meaning stop wasting money on too many employees).
What were the teams that got slashed the deepest or even closed? The Safety and Ethics teams. Wunderbar.
Facebook’s team combating disinformation and misinformation had corporate buy-in in developing a new tool for fighting this onslaught and saw this needed project also cut along with their jobs. Under Musk, Twitter killed off their Human Rights, Security, and Public Policy teams. Amazon’s Twitch streaming platform fired their Responsible AI group, whose job was fixing the rampant racism and sexism on the platform. Alphabet’s Google also cut their Responsible AI team as well, and Google owns YouTube, the world’s largest self-sharing video site.
Society’s Lack of Education on This Is a Clear Crisis
If the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections have taught us anything, people are uneducated and fall for disinformation, spread it like wildfire with the help of algorithms, and can’t be persuaded to understand what they just did and why it’s wrong. 2016 saw deep social divisions grow based on politically biased false evidence and narratives. 2020 took that division and widened it to the point where millions of Americans believed there was such an existential crisis in the government, society, and election that the only way to cure it was to storm the Capitol and stop a peaceful democratic process. Did all of these thoughts magically go away in the last year? Now, we are walking into a 2024 election with even fewer checks against the inevitable flood of disinformation we will be exposed to, thanks to Big Tech “efficiency” and the expanding use of A.I. to pump out fake news 24/7.
There are no easy answers here. I’ve called for educating the general public on disinformation and logic, but honestly, that won’t happen on any large scale. Besides shutting down social media platforms, the only solution is forcing them to have vast ethics and safety teams. That should be their cost of doing business. Honestly, they should want to help us here. An open society allowed them to thrive. Now it’s their turn to pay us back and help protect and rebuild the safeguards of democracy they’ve damaged that ensure everyone’s freedom.
An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small business owners up to Fortune 100 level companies for decades. Since the age of 7, he’s been on a first-name basis with technology, building computers and programming in multiple languages. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc at 19 which was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.
Nick is a regular columnist, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and on the Board of Advisors for both Roosevelt University & Center for Cyber and Information Security as well as the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s also the Official Spokesperson of the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition, Strategic Advisor to humanID, award-winning co-author of a bestselling book, TEDx Speaker, and President of The Foundation.