The Santa Clara
May 16, 2019
Since coming to college, I’ve developed a peculiar habit of “treating myself” to Safeway trips. I’ll go in with a loose idea of what I need—tissues, maybe some almond milk—and wander around aimlessly, letting my eyes glaze over in front of shelves stocked abundantly with colorfully packaged goods.
Why Safeway has become my odd form of therapy, I don’t know. Maybe, like a small bird, I get distracted by flashy packaging and bright signs.
Or maybe having an entire aisle of potato chips to choose from convinces me that I have some semblance of control over my otherwise tumultuous life as a college student.
But isn’t that what contemporary capitalism is all about? Choice facilitates freedom, and American supermarkets are the embodiment of this sentiment.
As a well-circulated report by Oxfam International illustrates, this choice is illusory: the hundreds of brands we see in the grocery store are owned by 10 super-companies.
You may think you’re choosing between 50 brands of cereal, but you’re really choosing between General Mills or Kellogg’s.
The same trend can be observed with big tech companies, but on a far larger scale. Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp combined have three billion users, and they’re all owned by Facebook. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook are both worth over half a trillion dollars. According to eMarketer, those two companies combined shared 56 percent of digital ad revenue globally in 2018.
We must recognize the unique power big tech has over our society. When so much of our understanding of media, politics and the world is shaped by what these few companies feed us, there exists a threat to democracy.
We know that, in a free market, companies will behave rationally by doing whatever they can to increase profits. That’s why we have government regulation. Take the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for example.
If left to their own devices, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies may be tempted to take shortcuts in production, leading to an increase in profits, but leaving customers vulnerable to unsafe medical products. This is where the FDA comes in: they ensure pharmaceutical companies are doing what’s best for the health of the nation.
Similarly, leaving platforms like Facebook and YouTube to regulate themselves comes at a cost.
To increase their profits, these sites have developed complex algorithms that push clickable content to the top of our newsfeeds. In doing so, they create filter bubbles, catering information directly to each user depending on their search history.
Author Eli Pariser coined this concept in his book “The Filter Bubble,” arguing that the representations these algorithms build of us can “be even more discriminatory than people would be,” narrowing our views and discouraging what is so precious to democracy: diversity of thought. In a world where the internet is the first place we look for information, filter bubbles are shaping our understanding of society in a dangerous way.
Social media platforms have also been weaponized by propagandists in the proliferation and spread of fake news. Because they are userinitiated platforms and not technically media organizations, they’ve been able to maintain the misinformation on their sites without being held responsible.
And why wouldn’t they want to? Clickbait titles and outrageous headlines get more shares, generating more ad revenue. But the harm to democracy is dire, as we saw with the 2016 election. While it may not be their intention, Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms have been shown time and time again to actively promote divisive, conspiratorial content.
Standing in the potato chip aisle at Safeway, I think the world of partially hydrogenated oils is my oyster—what an abundance of choice I have! Not so, and not so online, either.
What these algorithms show us is that while we think we have control over the information we see—or even actively search for—a handful of companies use the same algorithms that create filter bubbles and promote misinformation, limiting the diversity of ideas we interact with.
If the FDA can regulate food and pharmaceutical companies in the name of public health, why shouldn’t we regulate algorithms for the health of democracy?
As long as these companies regulate themselves, we will continue to confront issues of fake news, dangerous rhetoric and privacy violations. Part of the issue is technological illiteracy: during both Congressional hearings with Facebook and Google CEOs about privacy violations, representatives asked uninformed, unproductive questions.
What we need is an entirely new government agency to protect Americans and regulate these supergiants—one in which experts on data and technology can work productively with companies like Facebook and Google to create unbiased algorithms and protect us from privacy violations.
It’s time we recognize where antitrust laws fall short in the digital context and realize the unique power big tech has over our economy, democracy and society.
Carolyn Kuimelis is a first-year economics major.