WHEN a visibly uncomfortable Mark Zuckerberg was invited to offer an apology to the parents of children exploited, bullied or driven to self harm by social media during a heated US Senate hearing on child online safety last week, he stood up and turned to the audience behind him:
“I'm sorry for everything you've all gone through, it's terrible," said the Facebook founder, among other things. “No-one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered."
Decide for yourself how sincere this apology was:
Either way, it was part of a powerful piece of political theatre: for nearly four hours, powerful senators from both parties peppered five techno bosses with questions from their elevated podium. From there, they looked down to the floor where the five sat side by side behind a row of tables: Zuckerberg of Meta on behalf of Instagram and Facebook, Shou Zi Chew of TikTok, Linda Yaccarino on behalf of X, Evan Spiegel of Snap and Jason Citron of Discord.
Behind them was the audience, including a whole bunch of parents who held up pictures of children who took their own lives after being exposed to online harassment. Senator Lindsey Graham said it was “the largest [audience] I've seen in this room".
The hearing was held to discuss legislation before Congress that would hold businesses like Facebook and TikTok responsible for what is posted on their platforms. Zuckerberg and Chew voluntarily agreed to testify but the other three refused and subpoenas were issued to compel them to be there.
The safety of children on social media is a popular issue for politicians to address. It transcends the usual party political divisions and it's easy to get fired up about everything that's gone wrong. For example, Senator Ted Cruz wanted to know at one point from the Meta boss: “Mr Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?" This was after he displayed a message on Instagram warning visitors that they might see material depicting the sexual abuse of children then asking them if they wanted to continue.
Zuckerberg hesitated slightly then promised to “personally" see how it happened.
Another example was when Senator Tom Cotton asked Chew whether TikTok, which belongs to the Chinese company ByteDance, shared the personal data of American users with the Chinese government.
No, said Chew.
Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?
“Senator, I'm Singaporean. No," replied Chew.
“Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?"
“No, senator. Again, I'm Singaporean."
Both examples reveal something else about attempts to regulate social media: politicians try hard to sound powerful and authoritative but often do not understand enough about the inner workings of new technology. Zuckerberg may have helped formulate the policy that led to that message on Instagram but “What the hell were you thinking?" is the wrong question to ask. Similarly, by asking the CEO uninformed questions, Cotton will never find out who TikTok might share information with.
Another example of this is Spiegel, who, in response to a senator's question about children who died after buying drugs on Snapchat, said: “I'm so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies. We work very hard to block all search terms related to drugs on our platform."
Or Chew, who pointed out to Cotton that his children are not allowed to use TikTok because Singapore does not allow anyone under the age of 13 to open an account, unlike in the US.
So, on the one hand, some technocrats say: we want to regulate ourselves because your politicians do not understand what we can and cannot do. On the other, the politicians say: you technocrats cannot be trusted to regulate yourselves, so we will have to do it.
The public and the billions of people who spend time on platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube are caught somewhere in the middle. The credibility of politicians and trust in democratic principles and values is at an all-time low in many countries. Still, distrust in large corporations is also at an all-time high. For anyone who has been a victim of social media in one way or another, there are also a whole lot of people who depend on the same platforms for income, whether they are influencers or drug smugglers.
In any case, we will not easily reach a point where governments in countries like China or Russia think the same about regulation as those in, say, the US or the European Union. And in any case, the stricter the regulation, the smarter the circumvention.
This means the rules made by technocrats become increasingly important, while the reverse is true of politicians. As a result, power, influence and money are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of technocrats.
According to a recent Oxfam report, the world's five richest men (admittedly not all technocrats) have more than doubled their combined fortune since 2020, from $405 billion to $869 billion, an hourly growth rate of $14 million. At the same time, nearly five billion people became poorer. Oxfam reckons that if things continue as they are, the world will have its first dollar trillionaire in less than a decade — and it will take at least two more centuries to eradicate poverty.
Technocrats like Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are good examples of a phenomenon that Adrienne LaFrance recently described in The Atlantic: “The new technocrats claim to embrace Enlightenment values, but in fact they are leading an antidemocratic, illiberal movement.
“To worship at the altar of mega-scale and to convince yourself that you should be the one making world-historic decisions on behalf of a global citizenry that did not elect you and may not share your values or lack thereof, you have to dispense with numerous inconveniences — humility and nuance among them. Many titans of Silicon Valley have made these trade-offs repeatedly. YouTube (owned by Google), Instagram (owned by Meta) and Twitter (which Elon Musk insists on calling X) have been as damaging to individual rights, civil society and global democracy as Facebook was and is. Considering the way that generative AI is now being developed throughout Silicon Valley, we should brace for that damage to be multiplied many times over in the years ahead.
“The behaviour of these companies and the people who run them is often hypocritical, greedy and status obsessed. But underlying these venalities is something more dangerous, a clear and coherent ideology that is seldom called out for what it is: authoritarian technocracy. As the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley have matured, this ideology has only grown stronger, more self-righteous, more delusional, and — in the face of rising criticism — more aggrieved."
The American technocrat Marc Andreessen published what he calls “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto" lastOctober. About this, LaFrance says: “[It is] a 5,000-word ideological cocktail that eerily recalls, and specifically credits, Italian futurists such as [Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti. Andreessen is, in addition to being one of Silicon Valley’s most influential billionaire investors, notorious for being thin-skinned and obstreperous, and despite the invocation of optimism in the title, the essay seems driven in part by his sense of resentment that the technologies he and his predecessors have advanced are no longer ‘properly glorified'. It is a revealing document, representative of the worldview that he and his fellow technocrats are advancing."
It's a mentality according to which the technocrats know better than anyone else what is good for all of us. For example, Andreessen writes under the subheading “The Meaning of Life":
A common critique of technology is that it removes choice from our lives as machines make decisions for us. This is undoubtedly true, yet more than offset by the freedom to create our lives that flows from the material abundance created by our use of machines.
Material abundance from markets and technology opens the space for religion, for politics, and for choices of how to live, socially and individually.
We believe technology is liberatory. Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive.
We believe technology opens the space of what it can mean to be human.
In this new world, there is no place for rules imposed on the technological demigods by elected politicians and other ignoramuses because they only stand in the way of progress:
Our enemy is the Precautionary Principle, which would have prevented virtually all progress since man first harnessed fire. The Precautionary Principle was invented to prevent the large-scale deployment of civilian nuclear power, perhaps the most catastrophic mistake in Western society in my lifetime. The Precautionary Principle continues to inflict enormous unnecessary suffering on our world today. It is deeply immoral, and we must jettison it with extreme prejudice.
Maybe Musk, Jeff Bezos or Zuckerberg wouldn't necessarily agree with everything Andreessen advocates in his manifesto, and certainly not in a senate hearing about protecting children on the internet. Still, it's hard to miss the similar sentiments in how they operate their empires.
And while we may occasionally vote a Donald Trump from a position of political influence, how do we stop the idea that more and more technology must always be the way forward and that the rest of us don't just represent an ever-growing data set that can make someone even richer?
More importantly, how do we stop a small group of people from deciding on our behalf what the world that awaits us will look like?
♦ VWB ♦
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