“ A Society that is Addicted, Outraged, Polarized” — what Big Tech wants?

This Tuesday (April 27), a former Google employee turned critic of “Big Tech”, Tristan Harris, told a Senate committee that the business model of the largest social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and others, is “to create a society that is addicted, outraged polarized”. Holy Crap!

Big tech watchers and critics have long said this was the societal outcome of big tech’s business model. But to say this is what big tech wants from society, and from a former Google employee no less, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee!! Turned a few heads.

Harris, who is the co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, told the committee during the hearing on social media algorithms that social media companies profit, essentially, off of users’ addictions to their platforms.

Harris was responding to Sen. (D-Del) Chris Coons, who chairs the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law, as to his “understanding” of the “incentives for ‘employees and how it aligns with responsible growth versus growth at all costs”, according to Yahoo Finance.

Harris, responding to the question, went on to say “”My understanding is, even to this day, there was a brief experimentation at Facebook with non-engagement-based performance incentives for social impact but that those have largely gone away and it’s actually still a measure of engagement…things like not time on site but sessions, seven-day active users, growth, and that is still the focus.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NC) reportedly continued to press the social media representatives at the hearing as to whether their very business models cause user addiction. In response, Facebook's rep said that since 2018, it had already begun to “push content from families and friends over news stories. That is, despite that people spent fewer hours on the platform each day. FB claims it did this out of consideration for the long-term societal consequences.

However, Twitter’s rep remained vague on Sasse’s question. Youtube explained that it introduced various features to encourage users to “take breaks”. I can tell you from my rabbit-holing experience on Youtube, even though I’m aware of all this, I still get sucked into hours of viewing. And, if its news or ideology related, Youtube knows quiet well how to push users further into those rabbit holes.

According to Yahoo, anywhere from 5–10% of Americans have developed addictions to social media, much in the same way that we develop other chemical addictions.

This seems one of the areas where Congress should be working in a bi-partisan fashion, to rein in the major social media companies. We all know the famous line from Spiderman — “with great power comes great responsibilities”. Social media companies have developed an amazing amount of influence in a short period of time. They influence the minds and emotions of tens of millions of Americans each day and many more around the world. We would like to think that there is some thought not just to making more money but to social responsibility.

If one good thing comes out of these Congressional hearings, I hope its that. For society to wake up to what big tech has done, and for big tech to realize they cannot continue to pursue profits at all costs. Our society is too polarized and too fragile to handle that.

Based in Denver, Casey covers tech, the tech industry, and society in the United States. Stories and inquiries at: osbournecasey@gmail.com